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The History and Present State of Urgent Care

What Are Urgent Care Centers and What Services Do They Offer?

Urgent care facilities are so common that you may be surprised to learn that they have only existed in the United States since the 1970s, and the first known use of the term “urgent care” was in 1973. According to the 2018 UCA Benchmarking Report, there are now nearly 9,000 urgent care facilities in the U.S.; this number has been growing at a rate of about 7.5% per year since 2013. Around 80% of all “walk-in clinics” are urgent cares. An estimated 29% of all primary care visits and 15% of all outpatient physician visits are handled at urgent care clinics. Over 89 million urgent care patient visits take place annually in the U.S. Trends show that urgent care centers are increasingly owned by large corporate entities and decreasingly owned by hospitals. The urgent care industry is currently valued at $18 billion and is expected to continue growing. 

Among urgent care facilities surveyed, 94% report average wait times of 30 minutes or less to see a provider. About 35% of patients visiting urgent care clinics have no PCP, so clinics make an effort to help patients establish a relationship with a doctor. The main focus of urgent care facilities is treating acute but non-critical injuries and illnesses. By contrast, emergency rooms treat critical conditions, and PCPs and specialists may treat both acute and chronic conditions. Nationally, the fastest growing urgent care companies include MedExpress, Dignity Health/GoHealth, American Family Care, and FastMed. In the Bay Area, the largest urgent care chains are Action Urgent Care, CareNow, Concentra, Dignity Health/GoHealth, Sutter Urgent Care, U.S. HealthWorks, and One Medical.

Services typically offered by urgent care clinics include:

  • Diagnostic lab work and blood tests
  • Drug testing
  • Immunizations
  • Prescriptions (except chronic pain medications)
  • Physical exams (sometimes)
  • General primary care (limited)
  • Diagnostic imaging such as X-rays (rarely)

How Much Does an Urgent Care Visit Cost?

For common ailments that can be treated at both urgent care facilities and emergency rooms, one source estimates that the average low-level ER visit costs $504 while the average urgent care visit costs only $108. That’s a savings of 78%! Sami-Aid’s research suggests that $108 is near the low end of a basic urgent care visit in the Bay Area and that an average starting price is about $158, with a typical range of $100 — $200. These prices are for self-pay patients only, and do not include lab work, prescriptions, or any additional fees. 

Is Urgent Care Right for Me?

While there are many factors to consider, if you don’t think that your condition is serious enough to “result in death or harm to a physical organ,” then you can probably receive the treatment you need at an urgent care facility while saving at least 60% to 80% versus visiting the ER, especially if you’re paying in cash. Even if you do have insurance, though, your carrier may refuse to cover a visit to the ER if it was clearly not an actual emergency.

If you need a long-term pain medication or treatment for a chronic condition, then you should see a primary care physician or specialist instead of going to urgent care. If you need urgent non-emergency care, facilities designated as urgent care generally offer higher quality care than their alternatives. Urgent care facilities are almost always required to be staffed by at least one licensed physician, who supervises the nurses and physician assistants to ensure a relatively high standard of care. 

To learn more about your options for urgent care near you, or to compare prices for urgent care visits and services, try SAMI-Aid’s Provider and Price Search tool.

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