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Urgent care visits increase as emergency room visits fall, study finds

Visits to the emergency room to treat low-acuity conditions decreased by 36 percent; Use of non-emergency room centers increased by 140 percent.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Among private health plan enrollees in recent years, there has been a substantial shift from emergency departments to urgent care centers when it comes to patients receiving care for low-acuity conditions, finds new research from Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Treatment for new health problems, or acute care visits, encompass over one-third of all ambulatory care delivered in the U.S. Given the high costs of emergency departments, many insurance plans have created incentives to encourage patients to receive that care elsewhere.

In response to patient expectations for more convenience, and to long wait times at traditional physician outpatient practices, alternative care facilities such as urgent care centers, retail clinics, and telemedicine have rapidly emerged.

The team of investigators focused on the period between January 2008 and December 2015, examining de-identified data from Aetna, which insured about 20 million members per year during that time. 

They found that during those eight years there was a large drop in emergency room visits and a substantial increase in the use of urgent care centers. Retail clinics and telemedicine utilization also increased substantially over that time, but when compared to urgent care centers and emergency rooms, this still accounted for a small number of visits.

Visits to the emergency room for the treatment of these low-acuity conditions decreased by 36 percent, whereas use of non-emergency room centers increased by 140 percent. There was an increase in visits to all other venues, including a 119 percent increase at urgent care centers. 

Overall, across all acute care centers, the number of visits increased by 31 percent and spending associated with low-acuity conditions increased by 14 percent. The increase in spending was primarily driven by a 79 percent increase in price per emergency room visit for treatment of low-acuity conditions.

The researchers hypothesize that the reason for this growth is due to the increasing number of urgent care clinics, the familiarity and acceptance of urgent care centers as credible alternative venues among the community, their ability to treat a wide range of conditions, the convenience factor, shorter wait times and lower out-of-pocket costs.

The investigators also found that, among the population of patients with commercial insurance, patients with higher incomes were more likely to use non-emergency room clinics compared to people with lower incomes. Factors such as transportation and availability of alternative options might be an influence on that care pattern.

The findings suggest that while the overall use of acute care venues for treatment of low-acuity conditions -- and the associated spending -- continues to rise, urgent care centers are becoming the go-to option for growing numbers of people.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com

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