DataByte: The Rise of Urgent Care Clinics and Telehealth

By Brantley Scott

As healthcare costs balloon around the United States, people often wonder if anything can be done to lower costs and if any progress is being made to reduce healthcare costs. There has been much discussion on reducing the cost by limiting the amount of low-value or unnecessary care that is performed. One of the leading causes of avoidable high medical costs is unnecessary emergency department (ED) visits. In Utah, on average, ED visits cost more than five and a half times that of an urgent care visit.

Fortunately, in the last few years there has been a decrease in ED visits. ED visits can be categorized into 25 mutually exclusive diagnosis groupings called Major Diagnostic Categories (MDC). Figure 1 shows the decrease in ED utilization rates for the top 10 Major Diagnostic Categories from 2016 to 2018. While there has been a decrease in ED visits in Utah, there was also a significant increase in the number and percentage of urgent care and telehealth visits.

Figure 2 shows this increase from 2016 to 2018 as a  percentage of total emergent care visits.

It is important however that people who need to use  the ED do so properly. Table 1 displays the ED primary  diagnoses decreases for the top three Major Diagnostic Categories. The percentage of decrease column is calculated by dividing the difference in specific diagnosis cases by the total difference of the number of cases from 2016 to 2018.

While each ED case is unique, these diagnosis descriptions appear, for the most part, to be situations where an urgent care clinic or telehealth visit was a more appropriate use of medical resources.

As healthcare consumers become more familiar with proper ED use, it is expected urgent care and telehealth utilization will increase. Proper use of the ED will reduce unnecessary medical costs and free up ED resources for the patients who truly need these services.