The Growing Business of Urgent Care

Written by on August 1, 2014 in Insight - No comments

A decade ago, going to see a doctor for minor injuries and illnesses meant patients had to either schedule an appointment or sit in a waiting room as a primary care physician attempted to fit them into an already overbooked schedule for a same day visit.  As the American culture has shifted to a society of convenience, so too has the way patients expect to receive medical care.  This shift, coupled with the nationwide shortage in primary care physicians and overcrowded emergency departments, has led the boom for urgent care centers now popping up across the country.

According to the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine, there are approximately 9,300 walk-in, stand-alone urgent care centers in the United States. The academy estimates there are over 20,000 physicians practicing Urgent Care Medicine today, despite the industry not yet being listed as a true specialty.

Urgent Care: A Changing Business Opportunity

The growth in the urgent care specialty is fueled right now through a mixture of five models: Independently Owned, Private Equity, Franchise, Health Plan Owned, and Hospital Owned. Each of these models has a different reason for getting into the business of urgent care, and as they have found success in the business, the face of the industry has slowly started to change.

Reception2WEBWhile the majority of urgent care centers are still owned by physicians or physician groups, that model is on the decline as private equity groups, health plans, hospitals, and chains are slowly buying up the smaller urgent care businesses or consolidating them into national chains.  Four years ago physicians accounted for over 50 percent of the ownership of urgent care centers.  That number has now dwindled to around 35 percent.

A 2012 study completed by Health System Change found the primary reason health plans are delving into the urgent care market is a desire to steer patients away from costly emergency room visits.  The largest urgent care provider in the country right now, Concentra, is owned by Humana.  Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina made an investment in 2012 in FastMed to provide urgent care access to their patients throughout the state. That same year, Dignity Health bought U.S. HealthWorks and WellPoint invested into Physicians Immediate Care.

Many hospitals and larger health systems have broken into the urgent care market, too, seeing it as a way to drive patient volume and also alleviate the strain on their emergency departments. According to Beckers Hospital Review, the five largest health system urgent care operators include Aurora Urgent Care (37 Clinics), Intermountain InstaCare (24 clinics), Carolinas HealthCare Urgent Care (22 clinics), Florida Hospital CentraCare (20 clinics), and St. John Providence Urgent Care (18 clinics).  Overall, 25 percent of urgent cares nationwide are owned by a hospital.  This is a huge shift from just four years ago, when hospitals owned less than 7 percent of the urgent care centers nationwide.

Doctors Express was the urgent care industry’s first attempt at offering a franchise model. The model offered land developers and investors a turnkey opportunity to get into the urgent care industry. In 2013, Doctors Express was acquired by American Family Care but still operates as a franchise model.

Same Day Care with a Retail Model

Urgent care centers are often confused with retail clinics and standalone emergency rooms.  The difference is unlike retail clinics, which usually only have a few rooms and are run by a midlevel, urgent care centers tend to be run by physicians, have multiple rooms, and offer onsite lab and x-rays.  Urgent care centers differ from standalone emergency rooms in that they are not typically setup to handle trauma patients or to admit patients into hospitals.  Additionally, the cost to be seen at an urgent care center is substantially cheaper than the cost of a visit to a standalone emergency room, but it is often times more expensive than a visit to a retail clinic.

Because urgent care centers require top-of-mind-awareness to be successful, they tend to follow a business model similar to big box retailers. Centers are located in high traffic areas with convenient access points. They are open with extended hours, and unlike primary care offices, they utilize multiple marketing channels to reach their patient base.

The urgent care center model focuses on providing quality medical care coupled with a customer service centered patient experience. It is not uncommon for urgent care centers to provide extra amenities to patients like coffee bars, entertainment in waiting and exam rooms, and follow-up phone calls to ensure a patient was satisfied with their visit.  Additionally, recognizing the changes coming to reimbursements with the Affordable Care Act, many urgent care centers have started adding cash only services, personal injury services, and occupational medicine into their practice scope.

While the urgent care industry has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, most urgent care executives do not anticipate that growth to stop anytime soon.  Urgent care is still a growing business with an estimated 50-100 new centers opening each year across the country.

By Tina Bell
Co-founder of UrgentCareSuccess

Tina Bell is the co-founder of UrgentCareSuccess, an urgent care consulting firm and online educational resource provider for urgent care owners. She has served as the chief brand officer for HealthCARE Express since 2008, where she oversees marketing strategy and development for the company’s growing urgent care and occupational medicine business. She regularly presents at industry conferences like the Urgent Care Success Summit, the Medical Marketing Conference, and the Urgent Care Association of America’s conference.  She can be reached at

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