Across South Jersey, more urgent care facilities have cropped up in the past few years, driven partially by health care systems seeking to reduce unnecessary trips to emergency rooms where the cost of care is much higher.

As these centers grow, they also are evolving, incorporating "fast pass" appointments to speed visits, as well as other features.

At AtlantiCare Physician Group's urgent care center in Egg Harbor Township, for example, on-site pediatricians have been incorporated into the urgent care model, said Jennifer Puzziferro, assistant vice president for clinical integration and care management.

"It's relatively new but we think it's something that will spread," Puzziferro said.

Local health care providers say urgent cares can play an important role in overall healthcare delivery, but are not intended for emergencies or to direct patients away from primary care physicians.

"We want lesser type injuries and illnesses to be taken care of more appropriately in urgent care or primary care," Puzziferro said.

Market research firm IBISWorld says urgent cares are one of the fastest-growing segments of the health-care industry, representing nearly $15 billion in revenues.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare, is expected to drive future growth as insurance is expanded to millions more Americans, IBISWorld says.

The Illinois-based Urgent Care Association of America says more than 85 percent of centers expect growth in the numbers of visits. Of those, about 40 percent expected to expand their existing location or add another one.

The industry group says there are nearly 9,000 urgent cares in the U.S. that handle more than 160 million visits annually. About 25 percent of urgent care centers are owned by a hospital system, with the majority independently owned by physicians groups.

Health-care officials say they also help ease the burden on hospital emergency rooms.

In 2010, for example, Cape Urgent Care opened in Cape May Court House - across the street from its namesake hospital Cape Regional Medical Center. The urgent care facility was a venture between two groups associated with the hospital - Cape Physicians Associates and Cape Emergency Physicians.

Officials at the time said they were seeing increasing numbers in the emergency room and saw the urgent care as a more efficient and faster form of care for non-life-threatening emergencies.

Cape Urgent Care sees more than 50 patients per day, Cape Regional spokesman Tom Piratzky said in an email.

Services included treatments for general illness, fractures and sprains, minor eye injuries, lacerations, nebulizer therapies and others, he said. The urgent care also has an on-site laboratory and X-ray.

Piratzky said Cape Regional Health System has other efforts as well to reduce volumes of emergency room patients and offer care to patients in less costly settings.

These include opening six primary care offices in Cape May County, opening the Cape Visiting Nursing Association to bring healthcare and prevention services to homes, the implementation of chronic disease management programs to educate patients on how to manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes, and others, he said.

Inspira Health Network currently runs an urgent care center in Gloucester County and is planning to build another one in Cumberland County.

"Gloucester County has exceeded all expectations in the volume of visitations and the volume predominantly in evenings and weekends. That speaks to the need of that type of access," said Eileen Cardile, executive vice president of Inspira Health Network and CEO of Inspira Medical Center Woodbury.

Meanwhile, emergency rooms, which were intended to treat the sickest patients, have increasingly been used for non-emergencies and as safety nets for the uninsured or others without primary care physicians, Cardile said.

"Emergency rooms are invaluable to communities, but how they have historically been used over the years has been extremely expensive. You're seeing a growing uninsured population because of unemployment and these (urgent cares) are less expensive avenues for care," she said.

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By the numbers

•About 9,000 centers in the U.S. provide urgent care services

•The facilities see more than 160 million visits annually

•The centers average 357 patient visits per week

•Wait times to see a physician, nurse or physician assistant: 69 percent less than 20 minutes; 28 percent between 21 and 40 minutes; three percent more than 40 minutes

•Nearly 39 percent of urgent cares have been open for five years or less

•75 percent of urgent cares are suburban, 15 percent urban, 10 percent rural

•About 94 percent of centers have at least one full-time physician on staff

Source: Urgent Care Association of America