News Release

Urgent care centers reduce the need for emergency department visits in patients with neck trauma

Findings offer support that urgent care centers can cut costs and reduce emergency department overcrowding in this population

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Massachusetts General Hospital

  • Urgent care centers affiliated with a large academic hospital system reduced the need for emergency department referral visits in nearly all patients who sought care for low-acuity neck trauma
  • The findings offer support that urgent care centers in the community can cost-effectively expand access to care and help avoid emergency department overcrowding in this specific population of patients

BOSTON – A recent analysis by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) demonstrates that urgent care centers can divert the need for imaging tests away from emergency departments (EDs) following spinal trauma, leading to considerable cost savings and reducing patient visits to often overcrowded EDs.

The retrospective study published in Clinical Imaging included all patients who experienced low-acuity trauma and received imaging tests of the cervical spine, which is located in the neck region, at urgent care centers in team’s hospital network from May 1, 2021 to August 31, 2021.

Among 143 patients who sought care at urgent care centers and received x-rays there, only one required a referral to the ED within 24 hours and two required referrals within 7 days. When considering the savings of visiting an urgent care center compared with an ED, the researchers estimated that a total of $145,976 was saved over the study’s 4-month period and $437,928 would be saved per year.

“Cervical spine radiographs were almost always sufficient as part of an urgent care visit to provide appropriate care for the patient, which tells us that urgent care centers are successful in providing low-acuity cervical trauma care, avoiding costly ED visits, and avoiding more costly imaging such as computed tomography, which is the current ordering behavior in EDs for any cervical trauma,” says senior author Marc D. Succi, MD, a radiologist at MGH and an assistant professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School.

“One may ask: would these patients have presented to the ED if there was no urgent care center or would they just have stayed home? While there is no way to know the answer to this based on our dataset, what we do know is that this population needed care in their own opinion, was able to access care at an urgent care, and it was cost-effective. This is analyzing real-world behavior.”

The scientists note that additional research is needed to assess the overall costs saved from using urgent care centers for imaging in patients who seek care following trauma.

“Increasing access to imaging services in the community close to where patients live is an important priority that is supported by these results, both to help patients avoid unnecessary emergency room visits and to reduce healthcare costs for patients and the system as a whole,” says co-author Michael S. Gee, MD, PhD, Deputy Chief of MGH Radiology.

Additional co-authors include Azan Z. Virji, MPH, Abraham Z. Cheloff, Soham Ghoshal, Baily Nagle, Teddy Z. Guo, Michael H. Lev, MD, and Ali S. Raja, MD, MBA, MPH.

This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

About the Massachusetts General Hospital

Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The Mass General Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with annual research operations of more than $1 billion and comprises more than 9,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In July 2022, Mass General was named #8 in the U.S. News & World Report list of "America’s Best Hospitals." MGH is a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system.

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