"Doc in a box" uregent care clinics get new respect, financing and popularity

Urgent care clinics charge far less than ERs

TAMPA - If the last time you were sick or injured you decided to go to a walk-in urgent care clinic instead of an emergency room or your regular doctor, you're joining a fast growing trend.  

Clinics like Urgicare on Dale Mabry Highway in South Tampa are now part of a $14 billion business.  

"We do see people fairly quickly. We attend to their needs and as long as it's not a life threatening emergency, we take care of them," said Urgicare co-owner Dr. Husain Nagamia.

Like most urgent care centers, Urgicare offers vaccines and school physicals. They're open evenings and weekends but the big appeal might be the cost -- substantially less than an emergency room.

While it would be hard to spend more than a few hundred dollars in a walk-in clinic, hospital ERs might charge you thousands. And with so many high-deductible insurance policies, many of us would have to pay that out of pocket.

Big hospital groups are opening urgent or convenient care clinics by the hundreds. Florida Hospital in Orlando has 25 clinics in Florida, three in the Tampa Bay area, and are expanding out of state. One study showed only 7 percent of Americans ever used an urgent care clinic as recently as 2008.  Last year, it was 27 percent.

Wall Street has noticed the trend and has invested billions to expand chains that could make it tough for small operators like Urgicare.

"They want to capture the market and get the little guy out of the picture," Dr. Nagamia said.

Emergency room doctor Dr. Andrew Alexander of St. Joseph's Hospital said there are situations in which the emergency room is the only place to go.
 
"If you have a condition that is so painful you can't bear it any more, or have a life-threatening issue, trouble breathing, stroke, chest pain -- that clearly belongs in an emergency room," he said.

Alexander said about half the people who come through his ER could have been treated at an urgent care center. Yet you'll probably pay even less for non-emergency medical treatment by making an appointment with your regular doctor.

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