People in my industry are always striving to do a better job of putting patients first. Urgent care centers are probably the most successful example of customer service in action in medicine. The centers can’t replace ERs, which are equipped to handle real medical emergencies.  Nor should they replace primary care doctors, who focus more on continuity of care, especially for chronic conditions. But urgent cares are now well-recognized as being an essential part of the health care system.

And so, it is no wonder that over the past several years the number of urgent care facilities, including for-profit chains, clinics inside drug stores and box store chains as well as hospital and physician group operated facilities, has dramatically increased. In fact, according to the Urgent Care Association of America, between 300 and 600 facilities are anticipated to open this year across the country, bringing the total of these types of centers to more than 7,000. For the sake of transparency, Jupiter Medical Center will soon have a total of four urgent care centers in Palm Beach County, with more being planned. Given the shifts in our industry, we consider urgent care facilities an integral component of our health care delivery model.

The popularity of this type of care is driven by patient preference. They are conveniently located with hours that extend past the normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, the wait times tend to be modest and the prices are affordable. And for straight forward medical treatment – from strep throat to sprained ankles – the quality of care is strong.

The success and proliferation of urgent care facilities represents a dramatic sea change in the delivery of health care across our country. I believe their popularity is directly tied to the fact that they represent the health care industry’s first foray into delivering retail based care –care that is designed specifically for and with the health care consumer in mind. Simply put, these types of facilities are speaking and marketing to the two basic needs and wants of the consumer— convenience and affordability.

As patients continue to take a more active role in selecting their health care choices, pay for a greater percentage of their health care, and manage their health care spending accounts, they will continue to evolve into more savvy health care consumers. With this reality, along with the demand for providers to keep cost down by insurance companies, the retail or consumer model of health care delivery will continue to grow. In fact, urgent care health care delivery (which is now a $16 billion a year industry), is expected to grow about 3.5 percent a year for the next decade. This will make it one of the fastest-growing segments of the health care system according to IBIS World, a market research firm.

And so for us to remain competitive, we need to embrace this change and prepare for the dramatic rise in outpatient service and look to the retail model as a way to provide high-quality, affordable and convenient service. More importantly, we need to tailor and expand these services to the specific needs and desires of the health care consumer in our own communities. For example, at our facilities here in Palm Beach County, we will not only offer care for minor injuries and illnesses, but provide additional services like routine physicals, and dispense vaccines (including travel-related vaccines and information). We will offer access to laboratory and basic x-ray services where images are read in real-time by board-certified radiologists.

Finally, as we live in a highly active community with an increased demand for rehabilitation services, we will offer physical therapy on-site. This will provide consumers with a convenient “one-stop-shop” for evaluation and treatment of injuries.

Simply put, we need to offer our patients what they want and when and how they want it.

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