Urgent Care: A Fast-Growing Player

By Cari Wade Gervin
Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Is it past time for this growing field to become its own board-certified medical specialty?

The urgent care (UC) market in the U.S. has grown 5.9% each year, on average, for five years, totaling a market share of $38.5 billion in 2021. As the number of patients seeking care in UC centers continues to grow, some dedicated UC physicians think it is time for recognition as a designated field of practice by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS).

“With 80 million patients seeking treatment in UC each year … and as UC becomes increasingly the access point for healthcare systems, it becomes more and more important that the new gatekeepers — (i.e., UC clinicians) — are well trained for the task at hand,” says Joshua W. Russell, MD, MSc, FACEP, FCUCM, Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine and supervising physician at Legacy-GoHealth Urgent Care.

Why UC Is Different Than EM

When Dr. Russell switched from emergency medicine to UC, he found out firsthand that the skillsets physicians need are somewhat different.

“One of the things that struck me working in urgent care is that it requires a level of clinical acumen that is much higher than being in a family medicine clinic or in an emergency department,” Dr. Russell says. “The majority of UC clinics are a single [physician] provider, so you’re really relying on your own expertise to do the right thing — and you have to see patients pretty quickly, about three to four patients per hour. In family medicine, you usually have continuity with these patients. … And in emergency medicine, you have all the diagnostic equipment the hospital has to offer and all the specialists available on call.”

When Certification Could Happen

There has been one failed push to make UC a board certification, but it also took several tries before emergency medicine gained separate recognition four decades ago.

“You know, they say progress happens one funeral at a time, so it’s taking, I think, changing of the guard to offer that opportunity for hope,” Dr. Russell says.

While no new ABMS application is imminent, Dr. Russell thinks UC is likely to eventually become a subspecialty of family medicine or emergency medicine.

“Patients are implicitly putting much trust in a doctor when they present to UC,” Dr. Russell says. “Specialty board status allows organizations to trust that they’re hiring physicians who’ve proven competency and patients to trust that they’re seeing an expert.”