While we may fare better than most anywhere else in the world, there is still room for significant improvement in our nation’s health care system. I am not talking about raising taxes to pay for more health benefits, nor am I a hardline supporter of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), but what I am advocating for is a change in how Americans access urgent care. 

There is a defined difference between urgent care needs and emergency care, and for the most part, there are no real urgent care services that exist within our health care system. In our modern and fast paced world, often people do not “go to the doctor” unless they have a problem.  Urgent care needs often range from a sore throat that keeps someone out of work, to a patient who has chronic pain and finds themselves no longer able to manage with their current pain medication, or a person who slams their finger in a car door, or maybe a child that spikes a fever. 

When its 2 a.m. and one of these urgent medical events occur, essentially the public is left with the only option of seeking care in the “emergency” department (ER) of a local hospital, oftentimes obtaining transport to the hospital ER by an Emergency Medical Services ambulance. 

According to a study cited in an article in Drug Store News, people seek care in the emergency room due to a shortage of primary care physicians. Urgent care centers can help fill the gap between those without a primary care physician and the alternative of seeking care at the hospital.

The high demand for urgent care services bogs down the emergency health system provided by the emergency rooms across the nation and takes ambulances out of service. While it is convenient for most of us to be able to seek care for our ear ache at 2 a.m. in the local ER, when we find ourselves suffering from a heart attack and needing the full attention and resources of the ER physician and nursing staff, it would be nice to know that their attention is not stretched thin between our heart emergency and 10 to 20 urgent care patients. Not only does the influx of urgent care patients into the emergency care setting have the potential to impact the overall quality of care delivered to true emergencies, but it very much impacts the societal cost of health care in general. 

Emergency services cost more and are thus billed at higher rates than a visit to a local clinic. Most patients who are insured may well not see the actual cost of the ER visit, which is passed on to the insurance companies, driving up the cost of health insurance. Those who are uninsured are faced with a rather large bill to pay, often impossible, and when left unpaid, their default inevitably drives the cost higher for others, as the system is forced to absorb the debt. 

Support is needed to push for a system of urgent care services that are available 24 hours per day. These urgent care services could easily be staffed by well qualified primary care physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who can very effectively and efficiently address our nations urgent care needs and thereby take the pressures off of an emergency care system that is overwhelmed to the point that we are jeopardizing quality care and driving cost higher and higher. This urgent care system would provide a safety net for patients who seek care for life’s unexpected bumps and bruises, find themselves without the services of a primary care physician, and save society billions of health care dollars.  

Tom Dixon, Margaret fire chief