Searcy Ferguson<@SM>Jordan Buis<@SM>Rebecca Harrell

DALLAS-You can call them “doc-in-the-boxes” or “clinics,” but one thing clear is that urgent care centers are growing. And experts tell that, with the growth is coming increased demand for commercial real estate in densely populated neighborhoods near high-traffic locations.

The concept of urgent care has been around for about 30 years. Unlike a hospital or physician, the urgent care center has one goal: To diagnose basic symptoms and to get the patient out as quickly as possible. The experts agree that the concept has exploded in recent years for a variety of reasons. “There are currently around 9,200 urgent care facilities around the country, and approximately 300 to 400 being added every year,” comments Searcy Ferguson, first vice president with CBRE. Ferguson and CBRE colleague First Vice President Jordan Buis, handle leasing activities for Concentra, a national urgent care center company, which both brokers say attracts approximately 35,000 patients a day. On a macro scale, Ferguson notes, approximately 3 million patients a week go to urgent care facilities nationwide.

According to Rebecca Harrell, medical office broker with Henry S. Miller Brokerage, a factor increasing the demand for urgent care is changes within the integrated health care delivery system. Specifically, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, combined with a declining number of primary care physicians, means urgent care is starting to take up some of that slack.

But Harrell is adamant that there is a large difference between urgent care and primary health care. “Primary care is a more comprehensive approach involving patient treatment,” she explains. “It’s for patients with chronic conditions.” Urgent care, on the other hand, involves acute care, in other words, one-time symptoms. “Urgent care treats episodic problems,” Harrell notes. “Urgent care is there for non-life-threatening, or non-emergency types of situations like the flu or a GI upset.”

Another demand driver for the service has nothing to do with health care, but rather, is more centered on convenience. If someone has a sore throat or cough, it can be a pain to call an internist or primary care physician and wait for an appointment – and after hours, emergency rooms are a costly alternative. Again, enter urgent care centers to pick up the slack. “What everyone is going for these days is convenience,” Buis comments.

As a result, retail center landlords are starting to warm up to the idea of having an urgent care center in their mix. “Prior to the economic collapse in 2009, it was hard to get some of these retail landlords to talk to us about putting medical clinics in their shopping centers,” Buis explains. “But now landlords are trying to fill vacant spots and are soliciting us for business.” Adds Ferguson:” “They’re seeing it more and more as an amenity for their centers. They’re starting to realize that mom can go get her cake at the grocery story, then whip around the corner to get a flu shot for the kids.”

But this doesn’t mean all retail spaces are ideal for the typical urgent care facility.  Buis says Concentric prefers a free-standing facility, or at the very least, something with a front cap or end cap. The other important aspect is visibility.  Harrell points out that the walk-in nature of urgent care means it has to be seen from the street. And, adds Ferguson: “This is a retail tenant, and they’re looking for a lot of the same things as a Starbucks or a Chik-fil-A; they want the traffic, visibility and signage.” Also important for the urgent care center is parking, and with most retail centers, parking isn’t a problem.

This is not to suggest that urgent care centers are cutting into the territory of hospitals or even primary care physicians. The brokers point out that hospitals are the places to go when a patient is seriously ill. But for sore throats, colds or any other one-time illnesses, the urgent care centers are where patients go. “Urgent care visits aren’t profitable for the hospitals,” Buis observes. “It costs them money and clogs their emergency rooms. This is why hospitals are for urgent care facilities.” In fact, many hospitals are starting to own urgent care centers as well.

As for the future of urgent care, Harrell believes that the PPACA will mean more individuals will have insurance. That, combined with a growing population of baby boomers and the continued dearth of primary care physicians, will push the urgent care momentum further. Ferguson agrees with this assessment, adding that “if growth keeps on the same trajectory, from what we’re seeing from clients across the medical spectrum, the industry should continue to thrive.”