Are Urgent Care Centers the Answer?

Primary care docs are over-booked. Emergency rooms are expensive. Are free-standing urgent care centers the answer that can deliver needed care while saving money? This is the question asked by Liz Kowalczyk of The Boston Globe as eastern Massachusetts prepares for up 19 such centers to open in the months ahead.

“If they ‘are closely linked with the primary care practices that provide patients with the day-to-day care as well as the larger medical centers that provide them tertiary care, then they will contribute to the overall continuity of care for patients, and could very well save money in the long run,'” said Leonard Marcus, director for Health Care Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of Renegotiating Health Care said in the article.

Kowalczyk explores several challenges including that these new urgent care centers may not serve Medicare patients or other low or no reimbursement populations. Another danger is that they draw so much business from traditional emergency rooms that these perennial money losers look unsustainable to the hospitals that house them. Health care institutions are under increasing pressure to evaluate the services they offer in business terms — and many of these urgent care centers are for-profit competitors who will focus on the most financially desirable procedures and populations. A major question yet to be answered: can the traditional triad of physicians, community hospitals, and academic medical centers meet all of a community’s needs at a cost the community will tolerate?

Interesting times — and much renegotiation of the relationships between providers, insurers, and patients — lie ahead.


  1. In many cases primary care practices can also close this gap through extended coverage hours and diversified services, which can be economically viable and add significant value for the patient population; however, smaller independent groups often need help devising and operationalizing a sustainable strategy, as it requires a different approach to staffing, patient services, and business analysis. Far too many of our nation’s independent clinics remain entrenched in an archaic 1950’s practice model, lacking the time and leadership necessary to reinvent the way in which they do business.

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