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What will happen in urgent care this year? Urgent care is quickly evolving and shifting with the needs of the patient. Born from the need for fast, walk-in care for non-emergency situations, urgent care has grown up in the past decade and made itself a force to be reckoned with in healthcare.

Shedding its image as a “doc-in-a-box”, urgent care is now competing directly with primary care and emergency rooms. Noticeable movements have been toward consolidation, service diversification, and alignment with other healthcare entities as the urgent care market matures.

This leads us to our first trend to watch for in 2015:

Health Systems Acquiring, Building, or Partnering with Urgent Cares

Health systems are realizing that urgent cares aren’t going away. Rather than compete with urgent cares, health systems will acquire more urgent care groups both to reduce competition and to serve as a funnel for offering specialty care. It’s also predictable more health systems will build their own branded urgent cares, such as the example of Tenet Healthcare and MedPost Urgent Care.

It’s a win-win situation. Healthcare systems reduce costs by providing (or referring patients to) the correct level of care, and urgent cares have the backing of a larger business entity in the health system. Look for urgent cares to be operated by urgent care professionals, rather than being managed by primary care or hospital staff. For health systems who don’t acquire urgent cares, the trend will grow toward offering more urgent care-type services, such as same-day appointments.

Insurance Companies and Medical Groups Acquiring or Joint Venturing with Urgent Cares

With investments being poured into urgent cares, insurance companies want in on the action. Ever since Concentra (currently the largest U.S. urgent care operator) was acquired by Humana in 2010, urgent cares have been in the sights of insurance companies. Interestingly, Humana made news recently looking for a buyer for Concentra, because of the desire to turn Concentra into more of a primary care model. A sound investment, urgent cares help reduce overall healthcare patient costs (both for insurance payers and the patients) by providing more affordable services—and the circle completes itself by urgent cares being funded by insurance companies.

Medical groups and ACOs are realizing the opportunity in urgent care as well. Look for more partnerships between existing urgent cares and medical groups. Joint ventures with organizations, businesses, and other corporate entities are also likely. A current example is MedSpring being acquired by Fresenius Medical Care and partnering with Partners HealthCare of Massachusetts.

Large Urgent Care Operators Acquiring Smaller Urgent Care Groups

Not only will urgent cares be merging, but larger chains will begin acquiring more individually owned urgent care centers. This growth is happening because urgent care centers are being forced to compete directly with health systems—both for financial security and solid patient bases. As time passes, the trend will be fewer individual “mom-and-pop” urgent cares, and more recognizable branded urgent cares who will be part of a larger entity or health system.

Not that individual clinics won’t continue to spring open; this will continue to happen frequently. But smaller ventures will be run for a smaller period of time, then sold for a profit to interested parties. Large center chains will trend to hold a larger market share. Look for strategic partnering of urgent care groups based on service offerings, business relationships, and regional needs.

Continued Growth of Retail-based Urgent Cares

Urgent cares aren’t just in strip malls or next to your local hospital. Retailers have been in on the market for a while now too. Walmart, CVS, Target, and Walgreens are all examples of retailers who’ve included small, branded health clinics within their retail stores. Typically lower in acuity than traditional urgent care clinic offerings, retail clinics provide mostly simpler services like health screenings, and flu shots. Some retail clinics may even expand to full-on doctor offices offering primary care.

At 1,800+ clinics in the United States and a growth rate of hundreds a year, retail clinics will be a force for the future delivery and destination for healthcare services. With more retail clinics than hospital emergency rooms, it’s clear to see that the volume of patients retailers already have will drive changes in the landscape of healthcare. Retail clinics will continue to partner with health systems, corporate entities, and other healthcare operations—like employer sponsored clinics. Services will become varied as well, such as the offering of telemedicine or virtual appointment options.

More Diverse Patient Services Offered by Urgent Cares

Urgent care isn’t just immediate care anymore. Patients are changing, and so are the services they want. Clinics will need to quickly adapt to serve patients, by offering not only fast care for acute or episodic events—but also services for non-acute or continuing care needs. Urgent care is becoming more primary care; and in return, primary care is offering more urgent care services.

What could centers offer in the future? What about alcohol-detox, Botox treatments, follow-up services, and weight-loss programs? Future services will be what patients demand—and will continue to diversify. Look for centers to add services as they look for additional revenue streams and for ways to separate themselves from the competition.

Telemedicine services are another booming trend. The need for digital patient care will become the norm for the smartphone generations. Not just for rural patients or specialized care anymore, telemedicine lets practices reach anyone online or by phone. Virtual examinations, shared photos, ask-a-doctor apps, and video conferencing are connecting providers directly—and digitally—to patients.

In urgent care, telemedicine is practical  for primary care, lower acuity ailments, follow-up visits, lab result sharing, and employer-based health services. Telemedicine services will grow and standardize best practices. Urgent cares will need to interface telemedicine services with on-site healthcare technology tools to ensure patient safety, accurate charting and payer reimbursement, and coordinated care.     

More Digital Health Systems Interfacing by Urgent Cares

No longer a one-stop healthcare service, urgent cares need to connect with outside digital partners—EHRs, labs, PCPs, immunization databases, and so on. This digital communication (which applies to all healthcare service providers, not just urgent care) will need to be encouraged and supported by patients, in addition to governmental incentive programs like Meaningful Use, to be successful.

A universal patient health record for individuals may not be achieved in the next year, but as digital health systems move toward interconnectedness, the ability to see a patient’s history over a lifetime on one system could still become a reality faster than predicted. Urgent cares will need to choose interface vendors carefully as they progress toward full interoperability with digital patient information. Look for more interface types, security measures to support them, and cloud access for providers and patients to look up patient info as continuing needs for the future.

Final Thoughts

Certainly, 2014 has been an interesting year in healthcare. The trends we see for urgent care are a fast changing environment and more integration into other healthcare entities. This is exciting news. The adoption of urgent care is helping to meet patient needs more quickly, and this patient-centric influence is a step forward for healthcare. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens next in urgent care.

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 2015? Tell us your predictions in the comments below. 

This resource was first published prior to the 2019 merger between DocuTAP and Practice Velocity. The content reflects our legacy brands.

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