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Welcome to a new year for urgent care. Did you get a chance to read our predictions for 2015 last year? If not, you should check them out. Most of our 2015 thoughts came to fruition last year. What will happen in 2016? More of the same, perhaps—as well as some new shifts in care.

Urgent care, as a developing market, will continue to alter its face to fit the needs of 21st century patients—who will drive the development of this healthcare segment. Led by the changes in urgent care, primary care and other healthcare organizations are shifting to meet patients where they are. It’s a brave new world of on-demand care we’re in—with the patient leading the way toward the future.

This leads us to our trends to watch for in urgent care in 2016:

Health Systems Acquiring, Building, or Partnering with Urgent Cares

We included this in 2015, but health systems continue to jump into the skyrocketing urgent care industry—as they realize it’s better to partner than compete with urgent cares. Acquisitions and partnerships continue, referral bases are mutually beneficial, and healthcare costs are contained for insurance companies. Investor-owned and health system-owned urgent cares will continue to grow this year.

Top 10 health systems who own urgent cares, see fact #16, according to Merchant Medicine.

Correct treatment, per acuity level, is provided to patients with these partnerships—and urgent cares continue to benefit from the clout of hospital brand names. Due to the success of urgent cares, health systems and primary care clinics will predictably broaden immediate-need services, both digitally and in person. The need for coordinated care (and EMR interoperability) will also be more apparent as patient history is shared among providers.

More Mid-level Market Consolidation in Urgent Care

According to a Becker’s Hospital Review article, “There was an almost 20 percent growth in existing clinics in the past four years, with the total number of urgent care clinics exceeding 9,000, according to a February 2014 McGuire Woods report. The expansion is expected to continue; IBIS World estimates the sector will produce more than $18 billion in revenue in 2017 at more than 12,000 clinics.”

M&A is on everyone’s lips for a good reason. With this growth level in a fractured market, expect mid-level market consolidation to be the norm for several years. Urgent care players will continue to to form larger enterprises, using the plethora (and majority) of under three clinic locations ownership models to feed them.

No U.S. region or owner dominates the urgent care market—so consolidations will be needed to get to this point, which may take time (predictions are three to five years to reach this maturity level). Until then, small-tier ownership remains the majority.

Growth of Digital Connections for Patient Services and Engagement

With expanding services comes the need to connect in more ways. Growth of telemedicine (projected revenue from this industry is over $30 billion by 2020), especially in combination with urgent care, will be an interesting partnership to watch. Urgent cares have yet to fully embrace telemedicine, but the avenue lends itself to diagnosis or follow-up treatment. Telemedicine is also a growing option for urgent cares that want to expand into rural areas.

New smartphone applications for on-demand physician services are growing, as is use of mobile technology for making appointments, follow-up, and preventive care. Apps can help track patient history and report it back to providers. However, apps (and wearable health devices) tend to be fragmented at the moment, tracking different areas of the patient experience, but will be more connected with EMRs in the future. As patients take charge of their health, we’ll see tools grow to support them. Patient portals, web check-in, and self-check-in kiosks in urgent cares are now here—and these digital options will mature for patients.

Continued Growth of Retail-based (and Workplace-based) Urgent Cares

Last year we talked about growth of retail-based clinics. And the trend isn’t stopping anytime soon. Once again, we expect large retailers to add to the already thousands of existing urgent cares and quick-service clinics within their stores. This clinic-inside-a-store model will continue to serve an even lower acuity need for patients. (CVS’s purchase of Target pharmacies is an interesting item to watch in 2016.)

Treatments in retail clinics will continue to be general primary care services (as many patients don’t have a primary care provider or use urgent care as their primary care). We see nothing but growth for this model, as the aging population continues to grow. As predicted, retail clinics are partnering more with employers to create workplace-based clinics, for occupational medicine needs. Onsite workplace clinics will expand as employers strive to keep employees healthy (and insurance costs down.)

More Diverse Patient Services (and Hours) Offered by Urgent Cares

Like in 2015, we’re seeing more blurred lines between urgent care and primary care. Urgent cares continue to add patient services to fit regional needs, expand hours, and be open more days of the week. Urgent cares evolve to include new patient groups and even specialty-based services (such as pediatrics and chiropractic care). Labs and x-ray services are increasingly done within the urgent care, and employer services are being added.

Along with immediate care support, urgent cares are now offering more scheduled appointment times—along with pharmacies onsite and follow-up care. Varying urgent care operation models are surfacing, too. Like the market itself, urgent care and its services will continue to reflect what patients want. Profits (and coverage by insurance companies) will continue to dictate service offering longevity in the urgent care space.

Find more urgent care trends with the Urgent Care Association of America’s 2015 Benchmarking Survey Report.

Final Thoughts

What’s next for urgent care in 2016? More changes in services and model types, more of the same trends as last year, more technology integration, and more growth. As the market develops, we’ll see a focus on selling profitable clinics (with more strategic partnerships created)—along with a close watch on insurance networks, whose patient coverage is the lifeblood of the industry.

Steady market growth and increasing maturity means patients are satisfied with urgent care services—and trends from other healthcare entities in offering same-day care echo this feeling. Investors continue to like the bullish market of urgent care. (Read about FastMed Urgent Care’s purchase in 2015.) And the need for more healthcare options as primary care physician shortages grow equals a healthy future for urgent care. We’re looking forward to seeing how urgent care evolves this year.

Curious what leaders in the industry think about the future of urgent care?

Check out 2019 and Beyond: Perspectives of 15 Urgent Care Leaders

What do you think will happen in urgent care in 2016? Tell us your predictions.

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