Urgent care physicians play a more important role than they may think when it comes to preventing avoidable emergency department (ED) visits.
A recent study by the “International Journal for Quality Health Care” reports that only 3.3 percent of emergency department visits are considered avoidable. If that that sounds surprisingly low, the Advisory Board says that’s because the study’s definition of “avoidable” – “discharged ED visits not requiring any diagnostic tests, procedures, or medications” – is too narrow to truly encompass all avoidable ED visits. Rather, the Advisory Board broadens the definition to include:
- “patients who could have been treated in an ambulatory setting,
- patients whose visit required ED-level care but could have been prevented by effective and timely primary care, and
- those who did not need care for at least 12 hours.”
When this broader definition is applied, the number of avoidable ED visits increases significantly, and lack of access to lower acuity care is the first reason to blame. But is that really the case, or can urgent care physicians, who provide lower acuity care than ED physicians, do more to help prevent avoidable ED visits?
Urgent Care Physicians Can Educate Patients
Knowing where to go for medical care can be confusing for patients, especially since there are innumerable barriers to health literacy. Even the word “urgent” can cause confusion. What medical conditions qualify as urgent? Is “urgent” the same as “emergency”? Are urgent care centers the same as emergency departments?
Many patients visit the ED because they don’t think they have any other options or they don’t understand the options available to them. That’s why urgent care physicians shouldn’t just sit back and wait for patients to come to them when they’re sick or injured. Urgent care physicians should play a proactive role in helping patients understand their health care options and how to use health care services appropriately so they only visit the ED when it’s a true emergency.
Urgent Care Physicians Can Build Relationships with Hospitals
Hospitals and primary care physicians often see urgent care centers as competitors who are trying to steal their patients. This only further contributes to lack of access to health care because, instead of directing patients to an urgent care center for immediate medical attention, overbooked primary care physicians often force patients to wait overnight to get in to see them. That means patients aren’t getting the care they need when they need it.
Urgent care physicians need to build relationships with corporate decision-makers at hospital health care systems to help them understand that urgent care centers can be a part of the full spectrum of services hospitals employ rather than a source of competition. If they work together, patient access to care increases, and avoidable ED visits decrease. For example, when a primary care physician is overbooked, she can send episodic, urgent cases to the urgent care center so those patients can get the immediate medical attention that they need. In turn, the primary care physician can focus on caring for chronic conditions, wellness checks and follow-up care.
Urgent Care Physicians Can Fill a Need in a Community
According to the Advisory Board, “providing access to low-cost ED alternatives is critical to decreasing avoidable ED visits.” While they recommend that health care systems connect ED patients to primary care physicians as that low-cost alternative, urgent care centers are also well-suited as a low-cost ED alternative, especially when primary care offices are overbooked or patients need after-hours care.
The most successful urgent care physicians see a need in a community for after-hours, walk-in medical care and they step in to fill it. They certainly do a lot of good in those communities, but they also generate a lot of revenue for their urgent care practices. Identifying where there is a need within a community and building the right relationships with health care systems can not only increase patient access to care and decrease avoidable ED visits, it can also be a lucrative business venture for physician entrepreneurs.
Urgent care physicians may not play a direct role in what happens in the emergency department, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a difference in the patient care cycle, including preventing avoidable ED visits.
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