Constantly, we hear about the looming family doctor shortage, and the push to allow physician assistants and nurse practitioners administer more care. This is a very real problem in the United States, as the Association of American Medical Colleges projects our country having 63,000 fewer general physicians than needed by 2015. One possible solution that is gaining exposure is urgent care centers and retail clinics. The quiet growth in these industries is astounding, as MinuteClinic, a divison of CVS Caremark, is set on doubling their locations to 1,000 by 2016. Urgent care centers, which offer a bit more medical support than your local pharmacy, have grown to have 9,300 centers across the country, of which 324 are operated by Concentra. Usually these clinics offer services on nights and weekends, which is a huge attraction to many consumers, and their convenience pays off. A 2010 Rand study found that 1 in 5 emergency visits could be treated at an urgent care center, which could save us an annual $4.4 billion. In a country that is desperately scrambling for any solution to control healthcare costs, shouldn’t these centers be revered?
Although everyone agrees we need change in our healthcare system, some physicians and healthcare workers are resisting urgent care clinics. Even though we could save a huge amount of money, and make people happier with a less stressful environment and shorter wait times, critics still find fault. They argue that using these clinics disrupt coordination of care, and a push to prioritize the overall wellness of a patient. Primary care physicians will have a more personal relationship with patients, and be able to better treat them to avoid future problems. While true, aren’t many people without primary doctors? If these people need care for less urgent problems, aren’t they better off in convenient care facilities rather than the emergency room? Yes, emergency rooms are still necessary for many situations, especially because of their surgery capabilities, but it seems that urgent care clinics could improve access to care with half as much costs. Especially in 2014, when the Affordable Care Act expands coverage to millions of Americans, the development of clinics will be vital in ensuring cost management and control. We need to encourage growth of urgent care and retail clinics in the future as a way to advance the American consumer drive for convenience and affordability.