Urgent care centers boost spending on low-acuity visits, study finds

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Although urgent care centers deter some lower-acuity patients from a costly emergency department visit, they are not associated with a drop in total healthcare spending, according to a study published in Health Affairs in April.

For the study, researchers used insurance claims and enrollment data from 2008 to 2019 from a managed care plan to understand if the presence of an urgent care center substantially decreased lower-acuity ED visits. 

The authors found that the entry of an urgent care center into a ZIP code deterred lower-acuity ED visits, but the effect was small.

The study found that the reduction of just one lower-acuity ED visit was associated with 37 additional urgent care visits. In other words, the number of urgent care visits per enrollee required to reduce one ER visit is 37. 

The study authors found that the prevention of each $1,646 lower-acuity ED visit was offset by an increase of $6,237 in urgent care center costs. 

As a result, the study authors said that despite ED visits costing more per visit, the use of urgent care centers increased net overall spending on lower-acuity care. 

"This study documents for the first time that urgent care centers are associated with increased overall costs for lower-acuity visits across the ED and urgent care settings," the study authors concluded. 

 

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