Should your practice expand into urgent care?

It’s Saturday afternoon and one of your patients feels like he’s coming down with the flu. Your primary care practice is closed for the weekend. An emergency room visit would mean a long wait and a big bill. What should he do? For patients who want immediate access or need to see a doctor during off-hours, urgent care centers are filling the void.

Urgent care facilities typically offer walk-in services for nonemergency conditions such as strep throat, ear infections, minor lacerations, and simple fractures. Open during normal business hours as well as evenings and weekends, these clinics are usually staffed by physicians experienced in primary care or emergency medicine. Some urgent care centers also employ nurse practitioners, registered nurses, physician assistants and x-ray technicians.

The number of urgent care centers has exploded over the past 20 years, growing to about 9,000 facilities in the United States in 2013. And this trend is sure to continue as more patients demand convenient access to care that doesn’t come with a hefty price tag.

Many practices view the addition of urgent care services as an opportunity to expand their business, provide patients with greater access to healthcare, and increase revenue. But it’s not a decision you should make lightly. Here are three factors to consider:

Strategy

Expanding your practice to include urgent care services could increase your profitability, but it all depends on the ongoing costs and the level of demand that exists for these services from not only your current patients, but also the community as a whole.

Think about how urgent care would complement or fit in with your current practice. What benefits would it provide for your patients — extended hours, walk-in appointments, some kind of continuity with their primary care?

Urgent care centers typically pop up in populous, more affluent areas in high-traffic locations. Take a look at the market and your potential competition. Does your community need an additional facility that can provide urgent care? Where are other centers located in relation to yours? What could you offer or provide for patients that the others don’t?

Startup and operating costs

How much does it cost to establish an urgent care facility? According to the Urgent Care Association of America, “The current conventional wisdom says about $800,000 if you are starting from nothing. That should cover startup costs as well as three months of operating expenses until you start receiving reimbursements from payers.” Since you already operate a practice, your startup costs would most likely differ from this estimate depending on your current structure and needs.

The bottom line: average operating costs or annual revenue numbers are difficult to pinpoint because there are so many variables involved, such as “location, staffing model, services offered, contracts, rent/buy choices, and on and on.”

Space

Assess your real estate and facility needs. A convenient location with high visibility and accessible parking is crucial for attracting walk-in traffic. If you’re expanding your current space, you’ll need a separate entrance and waiting area for urgent care patients. Determine what’s possible as far as the available space and associated costs. Be realistic about the amount of time and money you’d have to spend on expanding your facilities — and the return on investment you can expect to receive.

Given all the considerations, if you’re still looking to expand into urgent care, be sure to do plenty of research before you take action. Besides evaluating the three factors mentioned above, check into local laws, state regulations, and payer requirements. It’s a good idea to be aware of any necessary certifications, licenses, registrations, or other rules up front. And prepare to bump up your marketing efforts, acquire more equipment, and hire additional staff, all of which will impact your costs and your opportunity for increased revenue.

 

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