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Urgent Care Centers: Between the ER and the family doctor

13 May 2009 BioMed Central Limited

Urgent care centers (UCCs) are providing an alternative to emergency room treatment. A study published in the open access journal BMC Health Services Research has shown that UCCs tend to be open well outside of office hours and offer a wider range of services than primary care offices.

Robin Weinick, from the RAND Corporation, worked with Steffanie Bristol and Catherine DesRoches from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School to investigate the organization and function of UCCs. Weinick said, “This is the first piece of research that's taken a nationally representative sample to look at urgent care centers. Given their extended hours, availability of unscheduled appointments, and the range of services they provide, urgent care centers are uniquely positioned within the health care system to address the overflow of acute care patients from primary care as well as low- to mid-acuity emergency department patients”.

The researchers found that the centers employ significant numbers of family physicians, and are slightly larger on average than office-based practices nationally. They have hours of operation expanded significantly beyond typical office hours, while also providing services such as fracture care, suturing lacerations and x-rays, which are more commonly associated with the emergency department.  The study was funded by the Urgent Care Association of America.

Weinick said, “A significant shortage of primary care physicians is predicted over the next two decades, and more than one quarter of family physicians are not currently accepting new Medicare fee-for-service patients.  At the same time, despite having fewer emergency departments nationally, demand for their services continues to grow. Given this combination, demand for urgent care center services may increase as well”.

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