Thursday, November 8, 2012

Hospitals Gamble on Urgent Care Clinics to Keep Patients Healthy

Some doctors are referring patients to urgent care clinics over primary care appointments or emergency room visits, according to an NPR article. The clinics are all about speedy service; some even feature a timer outside of every exam room so the staff knows how long a patient has been waiting. With the expanded use of electronic health records, clinics can pull up electronic health records to determine medicine allergies or if the patient is due for any other care.

Hospitals already own more than a quarter of the nearly 9,000 urgent care clinics in the U.S. that are drawing patients away from emergency rooms.  But this trend is in its “early stages” according to the NPR report.

But industry watchers say it is unclear whether hospitals will actually be successful at managing urgent care centers. They say that hospitals tend to be good at providing high-quality care, but patients may prefer clinics from a customer service perspective.

As an example from the NPR report, within the MedStar Health system, hospitals make money for every patient the clinic refers to a MedStar facility for follow-up care, like a CT scan or an appointment with an orthopedist. Patients who don't yet have a regular source of health care can be referred to a MedStar primary care doctor.

There appears to be a future for this model. Insurers and Medicare are starting to pay providers to keep patients healthy. Providers get a bonus if they manage to lower the cost of the medical services their patients need. These clinics could be a key part of this strategy for hospitals.

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