Walk-In Urgent Care Clinics Likely to Multiply With Healthcare Reform

Urgent care clinics could be one solution to the doctor problem.  If healthcare reform makes it more difficult to get timely appointments with primary-care physicians, one solution could be walk-in clinics where no prior arrangement is required. Similar to drugstore chains that offer limited services such as a nurse or clinics operated by emergency room physicians, urgent care clinics treat people who either don’t have their own doctor or can’t get appointment when they need treatment for a sinus infection, sprained ankle or other mild malady.

If Congress passes healthcare reform legislation, the urgent care industry could experience a significant growth trajectory.  At present, there are approximately 8,300 urgent care centers in the United States that offer services spanning emergency medicine and primary care.

According to Dr. Ira Helfand, who works at a Springfield, MA, urgent care clinic, “We have a number of primary care physicians in the community who regularly use us as an escape valve for their practice.  They get a call from a patient who has a problem.  They clearly need to be seen, but they don’t have time to see them that day, so they refer them here.”

Lou Ellen Horwitz, executive director of the Urgent Care Association of America, notes that approximately 100 walk-in clinics open annually.  She believes the pace will increase if millions of previously uninsured Americans get coverage as a result of healthcare reform legislation.  “It’s not as if our panel of patients would become full, and we can’t take more patients.  Urgent care doesn’t work that way.”

Because urgent care visits are paid per patient at a lower rate than traditional emergency rooms, they are perceived as a solution to increasing healthcare costs.  According to Horwitz, “The difference between the cost of coming to us and the ER is tremendous.  You multiply that over the number of visits we see per year (that) possibly would be seen in (the) ER, and you’re in multiple billions of dollars pretty quickly.”

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