Urgent care centers prescribe more antibiotics. Why is that?

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Urgent care centers are way ahead in prescribing unnecessary, potentially harmful antibiotics that are doing no one any good – at least no patients any good. The owners of the urgent care centers are the ones who are benefitting. And you and your family are being bilked, misled, and harmed.

A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at the proportion of antibiotic prescriptions that were made for viral respiratory infections – things like the common cold and bronchitis. These are viral infections, caused by viruses (sorry if I’m hammering that too much – but obviously it bears repeating.) The researchers looked at over 150 million visits to emergency departments, urgent care centers, retail pharmacy clinics, and medical office visits to compare the rates of inappropriate prescribing between these settings.

Why is this important? Because antibiotics will not help anyone who has a viral infection. But they can lead to allergic reactions and serious complications like C. difficile colitis. They also contribute to antibiotic resistance, or the emergence of so-called “superbugs” that we can’t kill with any antibiotics. This is not just a theoretical problem – it’s a huge a growing nightmare occurring in hospitals all over the world. Some bacteria have figured out how to evade all of our antibiotics, and it’s entirely our fault.

Big differences were found in the rates of inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions. In ordinary medical offices, 17 percent of respiratory viral infections were treated with antibiotics. That’s way too high, and we need to work on that. But even worse: emergency departments prescribed antibiotics for about 25 percent of these viral infections. And topping the list was urgent care centers, where 46 percent of viral respiratory infections were treated with antibiotics. That’s about three times as bad as regular office visits.

The best prescribing habits – and they deserve credit for this – was found at the retail pharmacy clinics, at about 14 percent. They often use protocol-driven clinical pathways which leave little “wiggle room” for the nurse practitioners that usually are on staff. I’ve been critical of these quick-minute-clinics before, and I still don’t think they’re a good place for children to be seen, but give them credit for not throwing around antibiotics.

But those urgent care centers – why are they so quick to write for an unneeded and potentially harmful antibiotic? Though this study didn’t look at potential reasons, one potential driver may be profit. Urgent cares may be especially quick to write antibiotics because they make more money that way.

Some urgent care centers sell the antibiotics (and other medicines) that are prescribed, so there’s a direct profit there. But more commonly, antibiotics are prescribed because it’s a quick way to give patient what they want, to get them out the door so the next patient can be seen. It takes much more time to explain why an antibiotic isn’t needed than it takes to write the prescription. And writing that prescription seems to feed a cycle of dependence – now, the patient thinks every cough needs an antibiotic. Repeat business!

It’s not just antibiotics that fly off the shelves at urgent care centers. They make money from lab tests and x-rays, too. I spoke with one urgent care center physician who had this to say:

Our pay was a small base compensation and all the rest was a percentage of our billing. The more patients you saw, and the more lab, X-ray, and meds you ordered, the more you got paid. Plain and simple. So not only was prescribing an antibiotic lucrative, not wasting time explaining why was also lucrative.

Now, many urgent care physicians are good doctors who genuinely want to help people. And it’s convenient to have them nearby for quick visits. But their employees may be under financial pressure to over-prescribe and over-test – and that can affect the care that you get.

How can you protect yourself?

  • Tell the physician, plainly, that you don’t want an antibiotic if it’s not needed. The doctor may be assuming incorrectly that everyone wants a prescription. Tell her that’s not the case.
  • Have reasonable expectations about ordinary illnesses. Coughs and cold symptoms rarely need antibiotics, even when they make you feel miserable. Most sore throats are caused by viral infections. We know you want to return to work and feel better, but an antibiotic isn’t going to help.
  • Use your primary care physician’s office as your main site of care. Get to know your doctors, and let them get to know you as someone who isn’t there just to get a prescription. If your own doctor is one of those that’s quick to prescribe, think about why that might be the case, and think about getting a new doctor.
  • Prevention is key! Wash your hands, stay away from sick people, get a good night’s sleep, and get all recommended vaccines. Remember, immunizations are the real immune boosters.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at the Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child and the creator of The Great Courses’ Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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