What is Urgent Care?
Urgent care centers provide outpatient care for minor emergencies that require immediate medical attention. While some urgent care centers offer appointment scheduling, medical care is usually delivered on a walk-in basis. The majority of urgent care centers offer extended hours in order to provide medical care during times when a primary care physician normally would not be available.
Urgent Care vs. Emergency Department
While there are hospital-based urgent care centers, typical urgent care centers are independent from hospitals and are equipped to provide medical care for minor emergencies and acute illnesses, such as sprains, fractures, and upper respiratory infections. Emergency departments are located within hospitals and are equipped to treat major, life-threatening emergencies, such as strokes and heart attacks, and have ready access to operating rooms and critical care units.
The chart below provides a guideline* for what services each facility provides:
* This chart provides an overview of services and should not be considered a comprehensive list, nor should it be used for medical advice.
Urgent care is considered a cost-effective alternative to emergency departments because patients can generally obtain medical treatment for 1/3 the cost of EDs. Urgent care is also emerging as an effective means of filtering non-emergent patients from emergency departments by providing them with an alternative for non-life-threatening conditions, allowing ER physicians to focus on true emergencies and resulting in shorter wait times for patients.
Brief History Urgent Care
Urgent care began in the mid-1970s as an alternative to emergency departments and primary care practices. Many of the original urgent care centers closed by the late 1980s, but the healthcare industry saw a resurgence in urgent care in the late 1990s as a method to help unclog emergency departments and provide a lower cost healthcare alternative. Today there are now more than 8,000 urgent care centers in the U.S.
Urgent Care Staff
Many urgent care clinics were started by emergency physicians who saw a need for a more efficient, cost-effective healthcare option. Urgent care centers, however, are not just staffed by emergency physicians. Besides being staffed by physicians of various specialties, urgent care centers are also staffed by physician assistants (PA’s), nurses (RN’s), nurse practitioners (NP’s), and medical assistants (MA’s).
How a Facility Qualifies as an Urgent Care
The Urgent Care Association of America (UCAOA) developed and set the criteria by which urgent care is defined in order to set an industry standard of healthcare for urgent care practitioners. Certification provides urgent care practitioners with the necessary tools to the educate the public on the types of services offered; a national benchmark for discussing higher fee schedules; and a marketing advantage through clearly defined levels of services.