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Urgent Care Fact Sheet

Main Points

  • Urgent care centers have a role to play in the health care system but are not a substitute for emergency care nor a solution to ER crowding. 
  • Urgent care centers are an option for common medical problems when a physician’s office is closed, but more serious problems require screening and treatment at an emergency department.
  • Urgent care centers typically have limited hours and less equipment and staffing than emergency departments.
  • Urgent care centers may be selective about which insurance they accept and typically require payment at the time of service.

Q. Are urgent care centers a safe alternative to the emergency department?

Urgent care centers can provide short-term treatment for relatively simple problems such as flu, fever, earaches, nausea, rashes, animal and insect bites, minor bone fractures and minor cuts requiring stitches. Because their hours, staffing and equipment are limited, they are not a substitute for the care provided in an emergency department. In fact, for life-threatening emergencies in which minutes count, a visit to an urgent care center may create a dangerous delay in care while the patient is transferred to a hospital. 

Urgent care centers may be a substitute for a regular medical office visit if a minor injury or illness needs treatment when a primary care physician is unavailable.  But many times, patients will not know whether their problem is minor and can be treated at an urgent care.  If a patient has any doubt about where to go for a sudden medical problem, the safest choice is always the emergency department.

Q. What are the key differences between urgent care centers and emergency departments?

Emergency departments are staffed by emergency physicians. Urgent care centers are usually staffed by physicians, though not necessarily emergency physicians. They may be staffed in the alternative by physicians’ assistants, nurse practitioners or physicians who are not board-certified in emergency medicine.

Emergency departments have a full range of diagnostic services, such as labs and imaging, within the hospital. In addition, emergency departments have specialists – such as surgeons and cardiologists – who are available to treat patients who need that level of specialized care. Urgent care centers do not have the same array of equipment and specialists that a full-service hospital has.

Emergency departments are required by law (EMTALA) to screen and treat any patient, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. Urgent care centers are not bound by the same legal requirements and may refuse to accept certain insurance or uninsured patients. They may also require payment up front.

Emergency departments are open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Urgent care centers typically have more limited hours.  They tend to have evening and weekend hours, unlike many primary care physicians.

Emergency departments treat patients based on the severity of their conditions, not on who got there first. Urgent care centers sometimes allow patients to schedule appointments and will see patients on a “first come, first served” basis.

Q. If urgent care centers take all the non-urgent patients, won’t that reduce crowding in emergency departments?

Crowding is a complex issue, but it is not caused by non-urgent patients.[i] Less than 5 percent of emergency patients are classified as non-urgent,[ii] meaning the vast majority of patients in emergency departments are seeking care there appropriately.

The Urgent Care Association of America predicts there will be more than 10,000 urgent care centers in the United States by the end of 2017, and that patient volume will continue to increase through 2021 to about 15,300 urgent care patients a year at each urgent care facility.[iii] Despite treating 153 million patients a year[iv], urgent care centers have done nothing to slow the pace of emergency visits to emergency departments, which currently stand at more than 136 million a year, compared to 119 million only 5 years earlier.[v]   

Q. Do urgent care centers and other retail clinics reduce health care costs?

No! In fact, a study published in 2016 in Health Affairs found that retail clinics increase health care spending.[vi]

Q. Are there risks associated with choosing the wrong facility for medical care?

Urgent care centers sometimes can be a less costly alternative to the emergency department, but if a patient ultimately needs to be transferred to the emergency department, there may be no real savings. In addition, the time lost in transferring the patient could further complicate their medical problem.  Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of emergency physicians responding to a poll conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians in 2014 reported seeing patients on a daily basis who had been referred to the emergency department from urgent care facilities that were not equipped to care for them.[vii]

[i] Annals of Emergency Medicine 2007, Michael Schull “The Effect of Low-Complexity Patients on Emergency Department Waiting Times”