By Bonnie Britton, Senior Vice President, AMN Healthcare
As healthcare delivery continues to evolve, nontraditional service outlets, including urgent care centers, are growing rapidly. Today, there are nearly 10,000 urgent care centers, expanding at a pace of 6% a year. In these times of shortages of almost all types of healthcare professionals, staffing urgent care centers requires careful workforce planning.
For patients, the appeal of urgent care centers includes lower costs, shorter wait times, extended hours and speedier treatments. Patients who visit an urgent care center may be newly insured through the Affordable Care Act -- and can be new to the healthcare process in general – so they may prefer the convenience factor and informal setting of these centers.
Most urgent care centers are stand-alone facilities or are integrated into shopping centers or medical buildings. While urgent care centers can be owned and operated by various types of entities, hospital ownership is becoming more prevalent. Hospitals now own 33% of urgent care centers nationwide and represent the largest ownership category. Hospitals recognize the ability of urgent care centers to reduce pressure on emergency rooms, meet increasing patient demand and create additional revenue.
While the rise of urgent care centers represents a positive development for patients, it also contributes to the growing physician shortage. Thousands of new urgent care centers are competing with hospitals, medical groups and many other organizations for a limited pool of doctors. It is estimated that 15,000 additional doctors will be required to meet the needs of up to 30 million patients insured through the ACA during the next four years.
Urgent care centers often utilize nurse practitioners and physician assistants in primary care roles; demand is rising for these healthcare providers as well. The urgent care industry has acknowledged the staffing challenges and is seeking to address them. According to a survey by the Urgent Care Association of America, recruitment of quality physicians and other providers has become a renewed priority, with more than 53 percent of centers indicating they have allocated an internal resource for recruitment.
Like other types of healthcare facilities, urgent care centers can benefit from a blend of permanent and temporary staff. The cost of vacancies at a busy urgent care can far exceed the cost of utilizing locum tenens practitioners or travel nurses. Hiring temporary staff also can help boost both patient and staff satisfaction. Patients obviously do not want long waits, and doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants prefer manageable workloads. Strategic planning and the appropriate use of permanent and temporary staff will be a key imperative for the growing number of urgent care centers seeking to expand services in an era of practitioner shortages.