Patients more likely to visit urgent care centers over ER, study finds

In case of an emergency, do you go to the ER or urgent care and pharmacy clinics? A study in JAMA Internal Medicine, Brigham & Women's researchers document a substantial shift with urgent care and pharmacy clinic visits increasing by 140 percent over an eight-year period while ER visits went down by 36 percent.

The study looked at anonymous patient data from health insurers beginning in 2008 when urgent care centers began opening in Massachusetts.

Study author Jay Schuur is the vice chair of emergency medicine and Brigham & Women's and says there's a place for both.

"So if patients are going to urgent care centers for the types of visits they can handle - sore throats, strains and sprains, other minor injuries, that is good because it's an area that may be closer to them and at the same time we want to make sure that patients know when to go to the emergency department for conditions such as chest pain or shortness of breath or abdominal pain," said Schuur.

The CEO of local urgent care company Carewell says as health care costs continue to rise, urgent care saves the systems and patients money.

"The staffing models, the infrastructure and the systems that are in place for emergency rooms are really meant for life-threatening cases so it's hard to be efficient. In an urgent care setting, we're really designed for lower acuity, non-life threatening visits so there's a lot less infrastructure, a lot less cost," said Carewell president and CEO Shaun Ginter.

The study does not address how the quality of care can vary between the ER and urgent care and pharmacy clinic visits, but the study authors suggest it does bear further review.

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