On the urgent care landscape, the forces to drive change often collide with an established healthcare model that pushes back in favor of yesterday’s medicine. During this time of change, patients are increasingly involved in their own wellness and the way they receive care. On this landscape, patients have more choices, more authority, and more influence with their healthcare choices as a partner in their own wellness, rather than simply a receiver of care.

As active participants in their healthcare decisions, vigorous attention to patient engagement and experience is the most notable trend for 2018. For the coming year, and perhaps the decade, patients will be setting a new bar for healthcare providers with their choices—and their dollars.

The market for healthcare-on-demand continues to grow. According to Markets Insider, the prevalence of urgent care clinics continues to rise, from $11.8 billion in revenue in 2011 to more than $15 billion in 2017—4.1 percent growth per year. Because urgent care is no longer just a niche market, but instead, an accepted alternative to primary care for non-emergent health conditions, patient demand is driving this market growth. As a result, the entire market is increasingly dynamic, from ownership and mergers to patient expectations and expanding specialties.

Political and economic factors, including rising healthcare costs, a shortage in primary care physicians, the inconsistency in quality of care, payer relationships, and the demographics of the population, have a big impact on the urgent care market. This impact is challenging industry leaders to rethink their goals, their business models, their business relationships, and their approach to care.

Every trend we see driving the industry is deeply affected by a new breed of healthcare consumer—making 2018 The Year of the Patient.


1. Increased importance of the patient experience

Every patient is different, and has more options than ever when it comes to healthcare. To stay ahead of the competition, on-demand health clinics will have to shift from offering one-size-fits-all healthcare services to providing an end-to-end, patient-centric experience.

We will continue to see more clinics focus on the patient experience before the patient walks in the door, beginning with web-based check-in and preregistration tools. Professionally built, engaging websites that project expected wait times invite patients to interact, offer information and value, and encourage them to “get in line” immediately. This is how consumers shop, make restaurant reservations, and reserve a tee time—they expect the same service from their healthcare provider.

Patients are looking for convenience, and even the most loyal are no longer willing to rearrange their schedules to fit a provider’s time. They will go somewhere else. Clinics must think about what healthcare consumers want before they come for a visit and respond to that. For some it may be valet parking or an Uber drop-off option, for others, it’s saving their spot in line (and being texted if something changes).

Clinics are also embracing the “retailization” thinking from a retail perspective—designing waiting rooms and lobby spaces to resemble a spa-like environment with an inviting atmosphere, displaying local art, offering educational materials, even scenting the air to put patients at ease. Clinics now offer more service options including diversified specialties, telemedicine, point-of-care lab testing, and prescription services.

Beyond the encounter, clinics are finding new ways to improve the overall patient experience, keep the lines of communication open, and maintain trusting relationships.

This starts with a fast, friction-free check out, and staff trained with the patient in mind. This includes asking for payment in a confident-but-unthreatening way, providing additional information or access to information, and inviting feedback. Clinics who see the importance of managing this crucial point in the patient experience are carefully selecting the right people for the job. But engaging patients doesn’t stop there. From post-visit surveys to ongoing text messaging, clinics are staying in touch and encouraging patients to share their good experiences via social media (the consumer’s vehicle of choice—especially for millennials). As an added benefit, post-visit communication enables real-time service recovery when things don’t go so well.

Meeting a variety of needs for a diverse group of patients, earning their trust, and increasing patient satisfaction are the tricky parts. That’s why your patient engagement initiative must be authentic. Successful on-demand healthcare clinics will actually know their patients—not just go through the motions.

In 2018, urgent cares must think retail, reduce the friction between the patient and what they’re asking them to do, simplify the steps to getting care, and present it all in a patient-friendly way.


2. Rebranding and marketing urgent care

In 2018, we’ll see urgent cares taking marketing seriously, and using data for direction. Many on-demand healthcare providers are partnering with trusted agencies or adding dedicated marketing staff to ensure they reach their marketing goals—and engage with their patients.

Because technology has such a big impact on how we market, clinics choosing to grow their marketing in-house should identify their level of expertise before determining strategy, and be sure they have the know-how to develop and deliver on-target marketing. Without a thorough understanding of marketing’s complexities, the wrong choices can have a long-term impact on the clinic.

We’re seeing many urgent care organizations partnering with agencies to get the most return on their marketing investments. When considering an agency, they’re looking for marketing experts that also have a finger on the pulse of the healthcare ecosystem. Finding a marketing partner with a slate of experts that understand your business and objectives should pay out with more patients and financial benefits.

As healthcare technology companies become more sophisticated, they gain access to relevant data that can help inform marketing initiatives. Some of these tech companies, understanding the importance of data, are offering marketing services to their customers. These services can be as simple as offering Google Analytics to measure digital advertising ROI or track social networking sites and applications. At the other end of the spectrum, others are offering a broader range of marketing products as a partner, committed to the success of their customers.

As marketing becomes more important all across healthcare, brand management is increasingly on the radar of urgent cares. Clinics are defining (and redefining) who they are, and who they want to be based on their strengths, the demographics of the patients they want based realistically on location, and strategically planning how to reach them. In today’s patient-centric market, that means creating a digital strategy including SEM (Search Engine Marketing) with sophisticated keyword bidding and SEO-rich (Search Engine Optimization) content on your website.

Beyond the brand, consumers are looking for real value and helpful information. They don’t want to be sold. They want to be informed. That means urgent cares must create and deliver smarter content that appeals to patients. So along with promotional messaging, urgent cares must deliver educational content via blog posts, contributed articles, video, and social messages that will help patients manage their health and healthcare decisions.

Community-based marketing is also a big part of the equation for 2018. Clinics are reaching into their communities and participating in health fairs and events that grow brand awareness and build their reputation. They are becoming sponsors for local sports teams and donating to important causes that affect the lives of people in their neighborhoods.

For urgent cares, a common marketing challenge is attribution—figuring out what’s working (and why) is one of the primary benefits of partnering with professional marketers who understand the business.


3. Data aggregation and analysis

As of 2015, nearly nine in 10 (87 percent) of office-based physicians had adopted an EHR. This means that most clinics large and small have access to data they’ve been collecting. In fact, according to a 2014 brief from EMC2 and IDC, healthcare data generated through 2013 was 153 exabytes and is expected to grow 48 percent annually, to 2,314 exabytes by 2020.

An exabyte (EB) is a large unit of computer data storage, two to the sixtieth power bytes. The prefix exa means one billion billion, or one quintillion, which is a decimal term. Two to the sixtieth power is actually 1,152,921,504,606,846,976 bytes in decimal, or somewhat over a quintillion (or ten to the eighteenth power) bytes. It is common to say that an exabyte is approximately one quintillion bytes. In decimal terms, an exabyte is a billion gigabytes.

An exabyte of storage could contain 50,000 years’ worth of DVD-quality video.

Source: SearchStorage/TechTarget

That’s a lot of data. The bigger question for 2018 and beyond becomes, “What do we do with it?”. In today’s healthcare market, the right answer often comes back to meeting the needs of patients.

The good news is, the industry is getting much better at identifying the right data, extracting it, and using it to improve their operational and clinical performance. From predictive analytics to quality benchmarking, smart operators are leveraging actionable data, and continue to think of new ways to make their clinics more successful.

Some of the most common applications for using data are:

  • Staff performance – Based on door-to-door times, Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and patient satisfaction, and visit volumes.
  • Cost-effective contract negotiation with most profitable payers
  • Site location – Evaluating traffic, population, and demographics
  • Marketing strategy – Looking at demographics and previous patient activity
  • Marketing attribution – For tracking campaign effectiveness and return on investment.
  • Revenue cycle efficiency – Reviewing incomplete documentation, coding, and billing mistakes
  • Real-time service recovery – Based on post-visit satisfaction survey and NPS score

Technology partners are providing a valuable service by helping urgent care clinics access actionable data with real-time dashboards for at-a-glance metrics, accurate reports, and analytics options built to suit urgent care organizations. With this information at their disposal, organizations can dive deeper, and leverage data for continuous improvement. Without experts to analyze, understand, and draw out actionable insights, data is just data. Further, actions based on inaccurate analysis can have unfortunate consequences.

There are still bridges to be crossed in the years ahead. Urgent cares, from a single clinic operation to large enterprise groups, must learn to make the most of the staggering amount of data they generate, resolve fragmentation through aggregation, and unravel the complexity of all this information to make it useful.

As healthcare organizations continue to generate enormous databanks, none of it is important if it’s not accurate, doesn’t move efficiency and profitability forward, and most importantly, benefit the patient.


4. Mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships

In an effort to deliver more value to patients and stay profitable, many healthcare companies are looking at growth through mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships.

The recent purchase of Aetna by CVS is a clear sign that healthcare consumers are having a bigger impact on the industry than ever before. The message from company leadership throughout this merger has been making healthcare more affordable for consumers, consumers who happen to be paying a greater share of their healthcare charges out of pocket. Thanks to HSAs, healthcare consumers are now looking for the best way to spend their healthcare dollars, and this is making healthcare giants take a good look at the best way to serve those consumers.

As demonstrated by Amazon’s predicted move into the world of drug distribution, we also expect to see more acquisitions in the pharmaceutical industry due to strong pressure from consumers to provide affordable drugs. With $17 billion worth of prescription patents expiring over the next 10 years, there will be an increase in the use of generics, and a lot of shifting to find alliances that will help companies stay profitable in a competitive market.

Hospitals are also spreading their reach through acquisitions, and in many cases into the urgent care market. Where historically, hospitals beefed up their referrals through private practices and affiliated specialists, they are now introducing new, relatively healthy patients to their network through their own urgent cares. As an added benefit, their on-demand and retail clinics provide an additional patient service and unburden their emergency departments.

In urgent care, you’ll see the same trend emerge, as larger urgent care operators acquire smaller clinics to increase their market share. Urgent care technology providers and SAAS companies serving the on-demand healthcare industry will also see some shuffling, as providers look for better ways to serve clinics and improve the patient experience through beneficial partnerships, technology integrations, and mergers. These companies will adopt a more global-solutions approach, offering a greater number of integrated options for clinics.

5. Changes in the workforce

As the urgent care industry evolves, it has become increasingly apparent that the right person, in the right job, has a direct effect on operational efficiency and patient satisfaction. Combine this fact with the shortage of primary care doctors, and we see a shift in the urgent care workforce.

Professional administrators, operations executive, marketing experts, nurse practitioners, and human resource specialists are rounding out the staff at many urgent cares as clinics continue to look from a retail perspective on how to build patient relationships and provide a more satisfying patient experience.

At the front desk, responsibilities have grown beyond answering phones and passing out forms. Efficient check-in requires accurate data entry, real-time insurance verification, and fee collection (all with a focus on patient care and comfort).

At every step of the visit, delivering a positive patient experience, education, and information sharing are key objectives.

With this in mind, urgent cares must be very intentional as they staff their clinics, and perhaps more importantly, develop a rewarding workplace culture that fosters loyalty and keeps top talent satisfied in a competitive job market.


6. New service lines

No longer just an alternative to primary care for non-emergent patients, urgent care clinics are expanding their service offerings to reflect the needs of their patients, and to build new revenue streams.

Occupational medicine services continue to be a good fit for urgent care clinics, but more urgent cares across the country are experimenting with new service lines that provide additional sources of revenue for on-demand healthcare clinics. Some of the most common are:

  • Aesthetics and skin care
  • School health and mobile school health
  • Mobile OccMed
  • Physical therapy
  • Weight loss and nutrition programs
  • Travel medicine
  • Primary care, in limited amounts/volumes

Urgent care clinics are finding they have more to offer communities than first thought and are exploring new and exciting ways to become more connected to the neighborhoods they serve by providing a greater number of healthcare services than ever before, including new payer arrangements with patients.

Some practitioners are becoming partners in their patients’ wellness with family membership plans. This new payer arrangement, based on fixed rates for basic visits, is a response to patients need for an affordable healthcare alternative and a sensible approach to healthcare in a changing market.


Embracing Change

Throughout the history of urgent care, change has been constant, swift, and essential to success. It should come as no surprise that with the speed of technological advances, the constant reform and reshaping of healthcare, and the rising expectations of consumers, we’ll experience another exciting year in on-demand care. Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be an exciting ride.

Stay on top of industry trends.

Using data from the Urgent Care Quarterly publication,
you can make better choices to improve patient care and be more profitable.

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