One of the most important challenges facing health care today is the cost and overcrowding associated with emergency care. Nationwide, hospital emergency rooms (ERs) treat approximately 125 million patients each year, mostly for serious injuries and illnesses. But studies show that increasing numbers of people use ERs for non-life threatening care or because they do not have access to a primary care physician. Using ERs in inappropriate ways contributes to overcrowding and longer wait times, places unnecessary burdens on ER staff and drives up the cost of care.

To help alleviate this problem, it's important for individuals to have other options for accessing appropriate care in an appropriate setting. Urgent care centers can be part of the solution.

So what are urgent care centers? They are facilities staffed by physicians, nurses, physician assistants and other medical professionals who provide basic treatment for non-life threatening conditions and illnesses, such as sore throats, rashes, minor bruises and muscle strains. They typically have specific hours of operation, unlike emergency rooms that are open 24/7.

While individuals are encouraged to utilize the care of their own primary care physician whenever possible, urgent care centers are a convenient and cost-effective option for non-emergency patients who don't have access to a primary care physician.

Please remember, an urgent care center is not a substitute for an emergency room when someone is facing a life threatening condition. If you are unsure about the seriousness of a health problem, go to your local emergency room immediately.

According to the Urgent Care Association of America, about 17 percent of ER patients do not need emergency care and can be treated in urgent care centers instead. And urgent care centers are less costly to operate because they don't need the same level of technology or equipment as ERs. As a result, appropriate use of urgent care centers could save up to $4.5 billion in unnecessary health care costs annually.

There are approximately 9,000 urgent care centers in the U.S., the majority of which provide primary care, occupational medicine, routine immunizations and physical exams. About half also provide lab tests, X-rays, fracture and laceration care, and intravenous fluids. Using an urgent care center for appropriate treatments can reduce wait times often associated with crowded ERs, allow ER staff to focus on true emergency cases and improve overall patient satisfaction.

Because we recognize the value of urgent care centers, many insurers like Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania (BCNEPA) are including an urgent care benefit in their plans. In fact, BCNEPA will begin making urgent care benefits available for most plans this March.

The health care network in every community needs a viable and appropriate option for treating acute, non-life threatening illness and injuries. By working together, primary care physicians, hospitals, insurance providers and urgent care centers can ensure that patients receive the appropriate level of care in the right setting.

Thomas A. Curry, M.D.,

Senior Medical Director

Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.