Posted On: December 5, 2012 by Patrick A. Malone

Urgent Care Around the Corner

An emergency, by definition, is a situation that needs to be addressed immediately. When the emergency is about illness or injury, people often head for a hospital emergency room. A few years ago, we wrote about a Harvard study that showed that longer ER waits were causing more serious problems, and even death. Unfortunately, ER waiting times, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, continue to rise. And a contributing factor is the high number of ER patients whose problems don’t require that level of care.

The time is ripe for greater awareness and use of urgent care centers -- one step below emergency rooms.

According to a study cited by The Journal, as many as 27 in 100 ER cases could be resolved at urgent-care centers or retail clinics. Many people, like Stephen Wheeler, have learned that lesson well.

Wheeler called his doctor about his painful, swollen finger, and was referred to PromptCare, an urgent care facility in a strip mall in the suburbs of Baltimore. He was treated and released in 15 minutes, an impossible efficiency had he sought care at either the hospital ER or his doctor’s office.

As defined by the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine (AAUCM), urgent care is the provision of immediate medical service on an outpatient basis to treat acute and chronic illness and injury.

Urgent care doesn’t replace your primary care physician; an urgent care center, according to the AAUCM, “is a convenient option when someone's regular physician is on vacation or unable to offer a timely appointment. Or, when illness strikes outside of regular office hours, urgent care offers an alternative to waiting for hours in a hospital Emergency Room.”

As recounted in a story on NPR, hospitals own a significant percentage of the approximately 9,000 urgent care clinics in the U.S. The whole point of urgent care is to get people in and out quickly, and because Wheeler’s doctor worked for MedStar Health, a Washington/Baltimore health-care organization affiliated with PromptCare, his health records were easily accessible.

But most people with an infected finger, which is what Wheeler appeared to have, could be treated almost as quickly as he was, especially if they knew their medical history, and whether they were allergic to any medicines.

One health-care consultant interviewed by NPR said it’s not yet clear if hospitals will prove to be successful urgent-care center managers, because even if they’re good at providing high-quality care, they might be less so at customer service. The most efficient urgent-care centers know how to minimize wait times, offer online appointment booking and convenient locations with parking or mass transit access.

As insurers and Medicare start to pay providers not only to treat the sick but to keep people healthy and reduce their likelihood of needing hospital care, urgent-care clinics could figure into a broader, more coordinated strategy of medical resource use.

To decide whether an emergency is best treated at the hospital emergency room or if an urgent care center will meet the medical need, link here. To find an urgent care center in your areas, link here.

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