Urgent care centers are expanding in popularity across the United States, reaching 9,619 locations in 2019 compared to just 6,100 in 2013. An urgent care center serves as the step between a doctor’s office and an emergency room, providing treatment and services for minor injuries and common illnesses. Urgent care centers consist of emergency doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants working to assess and treat patients.
Typical urgent care services include the treatment of common illnesses and minor injuries, as well as lab services and imaging capabilities. Here are some examples:
Sprains, strains, and minor outdoor injuries
Workman’s compensation injuries
Animal or insect bites
Rashes and fevers
Bronchitis, flu, and moderate asthma
Urinary tract, ear, or throat infections
Drug screenings and COVID-19 testing
Minor cuts and burns
Persistent nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
A Convenient Healthcare Option
Urgent care centers have made obtaining access to healthcare services easier than ever before. Patients with injuries and illnesses that occurred outside of doctor’s office hours were limited to the emergency room until urgent care centers were born.
Many urgent care locations are open more hours than a standard doctor’s office and later in the day, as well as on holidays and weekends. These convenient hours allow for more opportunities to seek treatment.
Offering walk-in services and minimal wait times compared to emergency rooms, urgent care centers have played a critical role in expanding options for accessible healthcare to address urgent needs. One study found that the amount of people seeking treatment at urgent care centers instead of the ER doubled between 2008 and 2015.
The convenience of urgent care centers has also reduced the need to visit an ER for non-life-threatening conditions. ERs are federally mandated by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) to stabilize and provide medical screenings for patients experiencing life-threatening conditions, even if the patient cannot pay for the services. ERs are often inundated with patients seeking healthcare services for non-emergency conditions, and urgent care centers have effectively relieved some of this burden across the country.
The high cost of accessing healthcare can be a deterrent for those who lack excess funds to pay for the provided services, both with or without insurance. “Medical debt is the number one cause of bankruptcy,” says Bill Fay of Debt.org. Catastrophic injuries resulting in long-term hospitalization can leave patients or their families with debt they may never be able to pay back.
Co-pays for visiting the ER commonly exceed $150 before any treatments are provided, while nearly all of the services provided by urgent care centers are covered by insurance. Debt.org estimates the average cost of visiting an urgent care center to be $100-$150 per patient, and other urgent care centers estimate the cost as $0-$100 with insurance.
Even if patients do not have insurance, urgent care centers remain transparent with pricing and include service costs on their websites. This way, patients know the fee of seeking treatment in advance.
Pricing differences between visiting an ER and an urgent care center can vary wildly. A Health Care Cost Institute study put the average cost of an ER visit at $1389 in 2017. This study also compared the pricing for average services at either location. The study found that the treatment for a urinary tract infection in an ER costs an average of $665 while the same service costs $112 at an urgent care center. Treatment for strep throat costs an average of $531, compared to $111 at an urgent care center.
Another downside of visiting an ER, even with insurance, is that an insurance company can deny payment for services if it is determined that the services could have been received at a lower cost through an urgent care center. This is called the Prudent Layperson Standard, which determines whether insurance companies will pay for services received at an ER due to a life-threatening condition or if it was a non-urgent condition that could have been treated outside of the ER.
Healthcare costs continue to remain high, and changes that make healthcare more affordable and accessible are crucial to improving the health of Americans. Urgent care centers have served as key factors in the shifting landscape of healthcare treatment for common illnesses and minor injuries. Thanks to their convenient access, multiple locations, and transparent pricing, urgent care centers are a viable and cost-effective solution for American families.
Blyss Splane BSN RN CNOR
Blyss is a certified operating room nurse living outside the Atlanta area. She is currently working as a travel nurse and loves meeting new people and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.