Spending Money to Save It: Why Hospitals Are Investing Millions of Dollars in Urgent Care Centers

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The driving factor of the urgent care boom is to reduce annual health care spending by a whopping $4.4 billion, according to a recent report highlighting the shift towards urgent care centers and retail clinics and away from hospital emergency rooms.

Due to the passing of the Affordable Care Act, urgent care centers have continued to gain traction as hospital officials seek ways to save. Designed to treat a variety of acutely arising conditions and offering a number of different services, centers are often regarded as somewhat of a cross between a primary care doctor’s office and an emergency room.

The United Hospital Fund’s report addressed several urgent care issues, such as lack of oversight and regulations.

The New York City-based organization’s report also went on to highlight the financial advantages as a result of a continued initiative to wean hospitals off revenues from emergency departments, which still remain one of the most expensive ways to evaluate and treat patients.

For example, the average emergency department visit can costs upwards of $1,500, whereas treatment at an urgent care center costs, on average, less than $150.

According to an estimate found in the report, 13 – 27% of all emergency department visits could have been treated at an urgent care center or retail clinic, resulting in a potential annual cost savings for the health care system of a staggering $4.4 billion.

Patients can reduce their personal health care costs by determining when it’s best to seek treatment at an urgent care center, versus an emergency room. However, many situations may not be so cut and dried, especially those involving young children or the elderly, who may find it difficult to communicate the severity of their symptoms.

Urgent care centers are best suited for conditions that require immediate medical attention but may not be severe enough to require a trip to the emergency, such as the flu. On the other hand, emergency rooms are better suited for conditions such as difficulty breathing, broken bones, high fever and other potentially life-threatening conditions.

“Urgent care is a great concept and critically needed, but we really ought to figure out how to ensure appropriate triage so patients who need emergency treatment don’t end up in urgent care and vice versa,” said Johns Hopkins Children’s Center emergency physician Therese Canares, M.D.

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