Our healthcare system has changed dramatically in the wake of COVID-19. With hospitals overrun with cases and doctors’ offices limiting in-person visits, urgent care centers have helped bridge the gap by addressing patients’ nonemergency medical issues.
They also have provided COVID-19 testing, crucial to limiting the disease’s spread. Here’s how urgent care’s reputation has changed for the better and how urgent care centers will play an integral role in the event of another health crisis.
Makeshift testing sites
In 2020, urgent care clinics experienced a 58 percent increase higher than the previous three year average in visits, with COVID testing and vaccinations accounting for around 70 percent of total visits, according to research from urgent care software company Experity. Of the 28 million patients who visited these clinics, almost half were new visitors. “We did a tremendous amount of testing,” says Lou Ellen Horwitz, CEO of the Urgent Care Association. “It brought in a lot of patients that had never been to an urgent care center before.”
Staffed by medical professionals, urgent care centers were uniquely positioned to administer COVID tests once equipped with the testing kits. By virtue of their convenience — multiple locations throughout major cities and around the country, online scheduling and even walk-in appointments — urgent care centers became the sites of choice for many people who needed to know their COVID-19 status.
“From an exposure standpoint, testing made a big change in perception,” Horwitz says. “People who came in gained a better understanding in terms of the scope of services we offer.”
In addition to raising awareness of urgent care centers, testing provided generally positive urgent care experiences for many. “[After visiting for a COVID test], a lot of people come back for regular urgent care visits,” Horwitz says. “So much of urgent care is oriented on the patient experience. Testing gave patients the opportunity to experience healthcare in a different way.”
Help when you need it
COVID taxed our healthcare system, as treating and containing the coronavirus became priorities for medical centers and healthcare providers. Hospitals filled with COVID patients, and primary care physicians’ offices were closed or operating with reduced staff to limit possible transmission.
Urgent care centers offered nonemergency medical services when hospitals and doctors’ offices couldn’t. “Once stay-at-home orders lifted, we were the only ones open,” Horwitz says. “We were seeing triple and quadruple the number of patients than we ever had before.”
As primary care physicians pushed out appointments for weeks and months, urgent care centers became the best option for patients with illnesses, minor injuries or other medical issues to be seen sooner. “Primary care has the barrier of making appointments,” Horwitz says. “You never need to make an appointment with urgent care.”
A new role emerges
In normal circumstances, urgent care centers take pressure off hospitals. A 2018 report from the UCA found that emergency department visits decreased by around 30 percent at hospitals with urgent care centers nearby. During COVID-19, urgent care centers provided more nonemergency care than ever, ensuring hospitals had the resources to care for people who had life-threatening emergencies.
How much urgent care centers contributed to our overall wellness during the pandemic won’t be fully known for some time. Still, it’s clear that they were critical — and will be again should we ever encounter another health crisis. “What would the pandemic have looked like without urgent care?” Horwitz says. “Where is the testing? Where is the healthcare? But we don’t get as much media coverage [as hospitals], because urgent care is not life and death. The role of urgent care centers in helping the country get through the pandemic has been underestimated — except by the people who have been to them.”
Government agencies are taking notice too. “We’re relatively small and have been off the radar,” Horwitz says. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a hard time getting PPE and test kits. People at the higher government levels didn’t realize how many urgent care centers there are and how they could use us in an emergency situation like this.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time building relationships with divisions of government that manage emergency response and community health,” she adds. “Now we’re on the government’s and regulatory bodies’ radars. Urgent care will be included in those emergency care conversations.”
The pandemic changed how patients and providers address medical issues, with urgent care centers rising in prominence as a part of the healthcare system. Though no one wants to anticipate another pandemic, COVID-19 has demonstrated how critical a role urgent care centers play.