conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Urgent Business


December 2015

One word explains the popularity of urgent care clinics: convenience. "We are an instant-gratification society," notes Dr. Rita Hanson, chief medical officer for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. "That part of our culture extends to our expectations for health care."

Upward of 40 million people a year go to an urgent care clinic, according to the Urgent Care Clinic Association of America. There are more than 6,900 urgent cares nationwide, and the association says the number is increasing by at least 300 clinics a year.

Part of that growth is coming as major retailers add clinics. In the Milwaukee area, urgent care now can be found at some Walgreens, CVS and Wal-Mart stores. (Target also operates clinics, but not at any Wisconsin locations.)

And existing urgent cares are seeing their numbers rising. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin treated nearly 23,000 patients at its two urgent care locations in 2014, continuing a trend that began in 2010.

Whether it’s called urgent care, walk-in care or immediate care, the model is essentially the same: a facility offering evening and weekend hours, with no appointment needed, for non-life-threatening health problems.

"Urgent cares serve that niche for those kind of things that do not require lots of high-tech equipment," says Hanson. "They basically require minimal equipment and minimal space."

By limiting their services, urgent cares keep their expenses down. And that leads to savings for consumers, compared with the cost of a visit to the emergency department. Urgent care co-pays vary by insurance plans but are typically $35 to $100, according to Wheaton Franciscan. Emergency department co-pays can run $200 due to higher facility charges.

The retailers who offer urgent care list up-front pricing on their websites: $40 to $129 for clinic visits. They also accept many insurance plans, so the consumer’s cost might be lower than that. But there may be added fees for lab work.

Aside from cost, not all urgent cares are the same. Clinics operated by hospital systems are staffed by physicians as well as physician assistants and nurse practitioners — and emergency department doctors are just a phone call away. Some clinics also have on-site labs and X-ray departments; some even treat minor fractures.

At clinics operated by Walgreens, CVS or Wal-Mart, there are PAs and nurse practitioners, but no doctors. "It’s the thoroughness of the care," says Dr. Laura Marusinec, an urgent care pediatrician with Children’s. "We might be looking at an ear infection and may also notice if the child’s weight doesn’t look good or that they’re breathing a little fast, for example. I think the retail clinics are more focused on that one, quick thing."

In fact, Walgreens and CVS clinics won’t even treat kids under 18 months of age; at Wal-Mart, the minimum age of its patients is 2 years.

Another important distinction is that retail clinics might not be connected to your electronic medical record and doctor’s office.

Market research is showing that location alone might not determine where a consumer wants to receive care, according to Hanson. "I might drive past three (clinics) on a corner that are unconnected to any part of my health care delivery system to get to the one that is, because of recognizing that value," she explains.


This story ran in the December 2015 issue of: