Urgent care treatment centers are becoming an increasingly common part of routine medical care in the U.S. Generally one of the biggest benefits urgent care centers have for patients is their cost. A 2016 study found that ER treatment costs were about ten times more (an average cost of around $2,200) than in an urgent care center (about $168) — even for patients with the same diagnosis. Urgent care centers are typically staffed with at least one medical physician or specialist, as well as a physician assistant, nurse practitioner, or radiologist, along with nurses, nursing assistants, and other personnel.
Given their growing popularity, the United States has seen a massive increase in the number of urgent care centers. The number of urgent care facilities increased from 6,400 in 2014 to 8,100 in 2018, with an additional 500 to 600 expected to open across the country this year.
An urgent care center is typically the "first step" in a patient's journey to obtain medical care. The urgent care center will provide treatment, prescriptions, and follow-up instructions if the medical issue is judged to be within their purview. However, matters that are determined to be more serious and/or outside the scope of available treatment are often referred to a local hospital.
Given the expanding role that urgent care centers play in our healthcare system, an increase in errors at urgent care centers could give rise to medical malpractice claims. A recent case out of Alabama highlights the danger of medical mistakes in an urgent care setting. In late 2014, Auburn student Hope Johnson visited Auburn Urgent Care. She was experiencing difficulty breathing and coughing. Ms. Johnson was examined by a doctor, prescribed an antibiotic, and told to come back if her symptoms worsened. Two days later, she visited the Urgent Care clinic experiencing sharp chest pains, difficulty breathing, and coughing.
On her second visit to the clinic, Ms. Johnson was seen by a new physician who claims he was instructed to see patients even though he did not yet have access to the computer systems holding patients' records and health history. Despite the fact that Johnson's vital signs were extremely troubling, she was sent home with an inhaler. Hope Johnson died the next day due to blood clots in her lungs.
Further investigation revealed that Ms. Johnson had been prescribed hormonal birth control. A blood test showing that she had a high risk for developing blood clots had been incorrectly documented by her gynecologist's office. Her family brought a medical malpractice claim against both the urgent care facility where she was seen and the doctor who cared for her the day before she died. A jury awarded the family $9 million.