The urgent care industry has been working tirelessly for decades to highlight its ability to provide immediate, high-quality care at a fraction of the cost of a trip to the emergency room. If a story published recently in Health Affairs is any indication, those efforts are paying off in reducing lower-acuity visits to the ED. Looking at insurance claims and enrollment data amassed by a managed care plan between 2008 and 2019, researchers noted that entry of an urgent care center into a vicinity resulted in fewer ED visits for complaints that could be managed safely in urgent care. Curiously, based on the finding that the overall volume of visits to urgent care resulted in an average increase of $6,327 in claims, the authors concluded that urgent care utilization tended to increase overall spending on lower-acuity care. This is made all the more puzzling by their admission that there is “a tenfold higher price per visit for EDs compared with urgent care centers.” Their commentary fails to recognize that the sole purpose of urgent care is not simply to divert patients who would otherwise go to the ED, but to offer patients care that they might not otherwise receive at all given wait times and exposure to other patients with higher-acuity concerns in the hospital waiting room. A natural outcome of increasing the number of visits is a corresponding increase in total cost. Further, the data don’t reflect the cost of hospital admissions that were ultimately prevented by care provided on a walk-in (and walk-out) basis in urgent care. In short, the article casts a critical eye on urgent care’s success in demonstrating its value to an ever-growing percentage of healthcare consumers.

New Data Confirm Patients Choose Urgent Care Over the ED for Lower-Acuity Complaints