For many medical issues that aren’t life-threatening but warrant care sooner rather than later, a visit to an urgent care center makes sense. With the tools and resources an urgent care center has on-site, they’re equipped to treat a wide range of illnesses and injuries. But who are the healthcare providers you’ll find at urgent care?
Depending on the urgent care center, you could be treated by a medical doctor, a physician assistant, a nurse or a combination of these. Other staff may include X-ray technicians and medical assistants.
“Urgent care providers are typically board-certified in either family medicine or emergency medicine, or pediatrics for a pediatric urgent care,” says Lou Ellen Horwitz, CEO of the Urgent Care Association. Urgent care staff also get additional training specific to the types of cases they’ll see. “All centers will have onboarding programs to train providers in the nuances of delivering care in the urgent care environment compared to their original training or prior practice environment.”
About 45 percent of urgent care centers are owned by or affiliated with a hospital. That means there is some overlap with larger medical centers too.
“Sometimes urgent care staff also work at hospitals or other medical centers,” Horwitz says. “Or they work at other urgent care centers full time and pick up shifts at other centers periodically.”
Here are the kinds of healthcare providers you can expect to find at an urgent care center.
The majority of urgent care physicians specialize in family medicine. Others are trained in emergency medicine, internal medicine and related specialties. Regardless, any urgent care physician can diagnose health conditions, administer treatment and prescribe medications. Smaller urgent care centers may have only one full-time physician; busier clinics may employ multiple full-time and part-time physicians, as well as temporary physicians who work for specified periods.
Be aware, though, that you may not necessarily see a doctor when you go to an urgent care center. According to a UCA 2021 benchmarking report, only 7 percent have a physician always on site. Sixty percent of centers employ physicians who are not always on site, and 33 percent employ physicians for remote supervision of physician assistants and nurse practitioners. But rest assured that, even if a physician does not provide your care personally, they will likely supervise the clinician treating you.
A physician assistant is a licensed healthcare provider with a medical education and clinical training who can examine patients, make diagnoses and develop treatment plans — but only under the supervision of a physician. However, PAs report they spend only 5 percent of their time consulting physicians, as they are able to diagnose and treat most patients on their own.
Nurse practitioners are licensed nurses with advanced education and training, qualified to perform many of the same functions as physicians. Often, NPs work under the supervision of a physician. However, in some states, they do not require physician supervision to diagnose and treat patients and prescribe medication.
Virtually every urgent care center employs medical assistants. These healthcare professions are typically certified by a national board or society. They help the on-site physician, physician assistant and/or nurse practitioners by obtaining medical histories, taking vital signs and performing other tasks. They may also help with front-office duties such as helping patients with insurance and billing.
If an urgent care center has an X-ray machine, it employs an X-ray technician, or radiologic technologist. According to a 2018 UCA white paper, 93 percent of urgent care centers use X-ray technicians. These professionals have formal training and are qualified to administer X-rays, CT scans and other medical imaging studies.
Front Desk Staff
The first person you encounter at an urgent care center isn’t likely to be medically trained. But the front desk staff can help you with billing and insurance questions — and tell you when it’s your turn to be seen by a medical professional.
In general, the staffing of an urgent care center isn’t going to look the same as that of a large medical center. “Since urgent care centers are very, very small compared to a hospital, the staffing is entirely different,” Horwitz says. “Typically, there is one provider — a physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner — supported by one to two medical assistants, sometimes a radiologic technologist, and a front desk person plus a manager. The bigger and busier centers will have two providers and more support staff.”