Use of urgent care centers is associated with a small reduction in lower-acuity emergency department visits, but with an increase in urgent care center costs, according to a report published in the April issue of Health Affairs.
Bill Wang, from Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues examined the correlation within ZIP codes between changes in rates of urgent care center visits and rates of lower-acuity emergency department visits using 2008 to 2019 insurance claims and enrollment data from a national managed care plan.
The researchers found that the entry of urgent care deterred lower-acuity emergency department visits but the impact was small. Reduction of a single lower-acuity emergency department visit was seen in association with an estimated 37 additional urgent care center visits. Prevention of each $1,646 lower-acuity emergency department visit was offset by an increase of $6,327 in urgent care center costs. Despite a 10-fold higher price per visit for emergency departments versus urgent care centers, use of the centers was associated with an increase in net overall spending on lower-acuity care at emergency departments and urgent care centers.
“Urgent care centers are associated with increased overall costs for lower-acuity visits across the emergency department and urgent care settings,” the authors write. “This reflects a substantial increase in access to unscheduled care, but it poses risks for health insurers and patients who must pay these increased costs.”