Urgent care, and the healthcare industry, continued an interesting evolution in 2016. While urgent care continues to mature as an industry within the healthcare umbrella, external factors of litigation, technology, and capitalism force the outpatient delivery method into ever-increasing redefinition.
What does the next year hold for urgent care? Likely, we’ll see urgent care, and patient-driven needs, stretch into other healthcare entities and spread its reach into areas beyond healthcare. Urgent care is expected to reach a $30.5 billion share of the healthcare market by 2020, just three years from now.
Here are the top five trends we’re watching for urgent care in 2017:
1. Interoperability Growth and Healthcare App-EMR Integration with Urgent Care
Wearable healthcare apps are everywhere—to track everything from hours of sleep to your heart rate or blood sugar levels. Still relatively siloed, wearable health apps—including consumer-facing healthcare tech products—will continue to be limited in usefulness until they “talk” to vital parties in healthcare maintenance (more than just the patient). The race to connect healthcare apps and products to EMRs and doctors is on.
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Smartphone use for patient engagement is now commonplace. But rather than just “pushing” alerts and reminders, it will be interesting to see “pull” and “share” from urgent cares grow as a true digital communication avenue between the patient and provider. Patient security with HIPAA concerns, shareability of patient health, and lack of standard communication hinder app integration with digital healthcare systems and providers.
We’re watching to see if healthcare entities will either purchase wearable app companies—and incorporate concepts into their own software platforms—or develop their own healthcare apps to speed the integration process. Both are likely scenarios. Speaking of communication, will patients also get access to their own EMRs soon?
Healthcare apps take longer to integrate with healthcare systems than interoperability between EMRs. CommonWell is making strides in getting companies on board with the concept of sharing patient data. Buy-in is largely an industry given, however there are a lack of standards among proprietary systems. Interoperability is difficult since companies are trying to connect ever-changing software, unique features, and disparate parts that don’t match other systems.
Still, we’re hopeful strides will happen with EMR interoperability this year with the development and market acceptance of web-based FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) versus HL7 (Health Level Seven) data language standards. An exciting future includes not just the “push” and “pull” of information from one API to another, but direct querying of specific patient data—and data caching (rather than storage) for greater patient security.
Learn more about FHIR and how it’s changing healthcare. FHIR Blazes New (and Needed) Path in Healthcare
2. Telemedicine Growth and Patient Access Improvements
Telemedicine growth was a trend we watched last year, and it will continue to grow in the industry. Baby boomers and millennials alike are pushing the growth of telemedicine in healthcare. Urgent care is no exception to this trend. For example, Doctors Care is using telemedicine to balance patient loads and reduce wait times. Certain health conditions seen by urgent cares need immediate treatment versus those better solved via telemedicine (such as skin conditions or less threatening chronic ailments). Telemedicine is removing the doctor’s office walls by giving patients access to at-home treatment and prescriptions—and providing care to anyone with digital access.
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The in-person patient-provider experience for physical treatments will most likely never be fully replaced by telemedicine, although the aging population will likely become more independent with self-treatments as the physician shortage grows in the U.S. Virtual urgent care clinics using telemedicine for low-acuity visits will trend up in future years—especially from urgent cares owned by health systems.
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3. Growth of Specialty, Retail-based, and Varying Models of Urgent Cares
We’re noticing a trend toward opening urgent cares with a single care focus, such as orthopedics, chiropractic/spine care, or pediatrics. Specialty care is the way to differentiate in saturated, suburban markets—and, in places where competition is large. A predictable shift is that we’ll see more “typical” child and adult urgent cares follow suit, hiring specialists to be on staff.
Thinking of opening a specialty urgent care? Check out our Insider Tips for Starting a Pediatric Urgent Care
In addition, health systems are pairing up with urgent cares to feed patient referrals to health system-affiliated specialty clinics. With more retail-based clinics in chain stores, freestanding and independent urgent cares need a better way to stand out from the clinic down the street—or in the patient’s favorite retail store. Interestingly, specialty urgent cares, along with retail-based clinics, are increasing medical spending, as patients access convenient healthcare services previously unavailable to them.
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Specialty and retail-based clinics may be making noise right now, but what about newcomers to the urgent care scene? While urgent care has traditionally thrived in urban and suburban areas, we’re wondering if the next move for clinics is a mobile clinic presence in high-demand or rural areas—in addition to telemedicine options for at-a-distance patients. And to fit in smaller markets, will urgent cares create hybrid clinic models with fellow hospitals or emergency rooms? Hospitals could also convert more of their space to urgent care, instead of referring patients to affiliated urgent cares and vice versa. One building with both urgent care and hospital services under the same roof is not yet the norm, but micro-hospitals could easily become so in smaller markets.
4. Location-based Communication Growth for Urgent Care Patients
Imagine living in a world where your phone knew exactly where the closest urgent care is, the wait time there, the prices for all services, and which doctor is available to see you. The Internet of Things means beacon-serving will direct patients to the right care at the right time in the future. Having symptoms of a heart attack? Your wearable device will know before you do, tell you where to go, and alert a provider in advance.
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When interoperability is completely realized, will your local clinics already know what you are suffering from before your visit—and why? Data is healthcare’s biggest resource for improving healthcare. Interconnected data is the next step in precision medicine treatment and targeted healthcare marketing.
5. Employers, Insurers Continue to Encourage Urgent Care Use
Urgent care will evolve into whatever patients want. As seen with specialty care, the push for lowering healthcare costs with urgent cares will continue to be seen. The hardest driver of this trend is money and insurance companies. Employers looking for ways to ease the ever-increasing cost of covering employees will push more of the burden of healthcare on employees.
To help lower insurance premiums, employers are not only offering high-deductible plans, but they are also taking advantage of occupational medicine (occ med) programs, which include employee wellness and injury and accident prevention training. It will be interesting to see how the new U.S. administration impacts the Affordable Care Act, which could drive more of an occ med push—among other variables in healthcare. Urgent care popularity will continue with employers and insurers alike due to lower visit costs and quicker back-to-work treatments.
Prognostications aside, the future is bright for urgent care. Trends will shift as fast as the evolution of healthcare itself. Urgent care and retail-based clinics currently account for 20 percent of primary care encounters. As urgent care grows, matures, and redefines itself, we’ll continue to see a greater level of sophisticated care and integration into other healthcare entities and industries. Technology and the flexibility of urgent care to be molded to patients’ needs makes it a dynamic healthcare market to watch—and to be a part of.
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