Urgent care visits continue to substantially increase as more Americans facing co-pays, co-insurance and high deductibles seek lower cost options for healthcare. The urgent care industry—that’s exploded into a $16 billion phenomenon in the U.S.—traces its roots back to Northern Illinois.

For 2015, urgent care provided $850 million in economic benefit to Northern Illinois, including Greater Chicago. That’s according to Practice Velocity estimates based on the ripple impact of the company and its affiliated urgent care operators, combined with an estimated $500 million in healthcare cost savings attributed to urgent care. Practice Velocity is a national urgent care software, consulting and billing company headquartered in Machesney Park.economic impact

Rockford physician entrepreneurs played a major role in planting the seeds for the economic impact seen today. And it’s especially notable as national Urgent Care Awareness Week is recognized from May 16-20.

Physicians Immediate Care (PIC) started with a single clinic in 1987 on Morsay Drive in Rockford. Nearly 30 years later, Physicians Immediate Care has expanded into one of the 10 largest urgent care center chains in the country currently with 37 locations in three states—drawing more than 500,000 patient visits annually.

Dr. John Koehler opened the first Physicians Immediate Care center with three other emergency physicians who saw the need for immediate care in a setting outside of hospital ERs. Drs. David Stern and Terry Buzzard joined as the enterprise expanded in the 1990s to a series of urgent care centers across the Rockford region.

Urgent care centers are designed to treat non-emergency conditions, most commonly illnesses such as colds, flu, fevers, sore throats, and injuries including bone fractures and sprains. There are roughly 215 urgent care centers in Illinois and an estimated 7,100 across the country. The facilities offer significant cost savings over emergency room care. In fact, an estimated 27 percent of ER visits could take place in an urgent care setting and save $4.4 billion in U.S. healthcare spending annually, according to Health Affairs policy journal.

“Urgent care fills the void between primary and emergency care,” Stern said. “It’s an industry dedicated to helping people get the care they need in an efficient and cost-conscious manner.”

In 2004, Stern, Buzzard and Koehler helped found the Urgent Care Association of America in Naperville. The nonprofit organization has 6,500 members and works to educate urgent care providers, advocate, and promote the importance of urgent care medicine. Stern and Koehler also helped launch the Journal of Urgent Care Medicine publication in 2006. The next year one of only three national fellowship programs in urgent care medicine launched at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford campus.

Koehler, who remains Medical Director for Occupational Medicine at PIC, said his venture pioneered the hybrid urgent care/occupational medicine hybrid. And Physicians Immediate Care now serves more than 5,000 corporate clients.

Just over a decade ago, hundreds of other emergency physicians across the country started going down the path paved by the Stern, Koehler, and Buzzard. The urgent care industry had been adding about 300 centers each year, and the pace of growth nearly doubled in 2011, according to data from the Urgent Care Association of America. The overall industry is expected to grow 3.5 percent each year for the next decade, according to IBIS World, a market research firm.

“Urgent care is a consumer-driven phenomenon that fits well in the 21st Century, with its emphasis on delivering greater convenience, accessibility, hours and service at a lower cost than emergency rooms,” said Alan Ayers, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Practice Velocity.

The partners behind PIC also developed Practice Velocity to further serve the niche urgent care market. Stern has shifted his focus exclusively to the technology company, expanding its scope and developing the #1-rated urgent care Electronic Medical Record (EMR) in the industry.

Practice Velocity has provided software to more than 1,200 urgent care centers in 50 states. The company employs roughly 250 people, and Practice Velocity spent more than $750,000 last year at Northern Illinois businesses. Practice Velocity was one of just five Illinois companies to earn a 2014 economic development award from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and Illinois Economic Development Association for job growth in the state.