June 27, 2019
John B. Mugford

With Payment Model Changes, New Opportunities Abound for Urgent Care Centers

There’s a widespread notion that opportunities to open new urgent care centers (UCCs) in the United States have, for the most part, run their course.

The main culprits, it would seem, have been an over-saturation of such facilities in affluent suburban and Sunbelt markets and a somewhat restrictive payment model that left many patients with higher co-pays than typical doctor visits.

However, according to a pair of panelists who recently took part in a discussion about real estate strategies for UCCs, the landscape has changed in the last year or so, creating opportunities for new UCCs in markets once considered poor fits for such facilities, be they new developments or buildouts of existing spaces.

“We are seeing a huge opportunity in rural and secondary markets just following the Walmart footprint alone,” said Alan Ayers, senior consultant with Rockford, Ill.-based Urgent Care Consultants.

“There’s probably runway for another 1,500 urgent care centers in this country,” he added According to the Urgent Care Association of America, there were about 7,100 UCCs nationwide as of 2016.

Ayers was joined by Gary Weatherford, chief customer officer with Atlanta-based GoHealth Urgent Care, on a panel session during the healthcare real estate portion of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) RECon global convention in May at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Their session, moderated by David Wirth, director of retail services in the St. Louis office of Cushman & Wakefield, was titled “The Doctor Is In: Urgent Care Clinics’ Real Estate Strategy.”

While many suburban markets nationwide have indeed reached a saturation point for UCCs, changes in healthcare and payment systems are creating the new opportunities for such clinics.

“We’ve seen the change in the model where both the payor market has changed…,” Ayers said. “Medicaid populations really weren’t viable for urgent care. That’s now changing.”

As a result, locating urgent care facilities in upscale markets where many patients have private healthcare insurance is no longer a necessity.

“In the past, (locating UCCs) has been more of an affluent phenomenon because we were primarily targeting patients who are willing to pay a higher co-pay than primary care and who have private insurance,” Ayers said.

He added that even though the development and placement of urgent care facilities started out as “a Sunbelt phenomenon, an affluent suburban phenomenon, now it’s becoming almost ubiquitous, with a lot of opportunities evolving in rural and secondary markets.”

And while Ayers said there’s a runway for as many as 1,500 new UCCs nationwide, he added that there’s caveat to opening such facilities in secondary or rural markets: those markets typically have room for just one UCC, or just one operator of a small number of UCCs.

Ayers and Weatherford also talked about how providers and urgent care companies typically go about finding the best sites for UCCs, what type of spaces — often in highly visible retail locations — they prefer, how they like to design such spaces, how they to make the experience a good one for patients, and other strategies.

“Primarily, in a couple of words or less, we look for areas where people live their lives,” Weatherford said. His company has partnered with major health systems in the opening and operating of UCCs in California, Connecticut, Missouri and New York.

When his company moves forward with a UCC, it does its best to provide a “good patient experienced” adding that his firm’s average build-out cost is “north of $200 a square foot.”

“We have state-of-the-art technology in the rooms,” Weatherford continued. “We have monitors so they can watch football games and cartoons. The patients are able to see their own chart in the rooms. Everything is set up around the provider. Our product is our provider, and much like an Apple Store … they’re designed to focus on the product as the hero. And so at our centers, the provider is the hero, and that’s who people come to see.”

John B. Mugford is the editor of Healthcare Real Estate Insights. For more information on HREI – please visit HREInsights.com