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The New Health Dialogue

A Blog from New America's Health Policy Program

The Number of the Day and ER alternatives

Published:  June 26, 2012
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The number of the day is 222—the international dialing code for Mauritania.  More interestingly, 222 is the number of nationwide ER visits per minute in 2011, according to the 2007 Emergency Department Summary from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS). Across the year that amounts to “116.8 million ER visits or 39.4 visits per 100 persons.”

Last Monday the Alliance for Health Reform held a Briefing addressing this topic: "The Right Care at the Right Time:  Are Retail Clinics Meeting a Need?" The briefing was sponsored by the Alliance and WellPoint, Inc. to examine the question of whether urgent care clinics and retail care clinics (together called convenient care clinics) are meeting a need in the health care system. The panelists at the event included physicians from WellPoint, RAND Health, and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The president of the trade association for retail clinics, the Convenient Care Association, was also on the panel. The conclusion of everyone present was that convenient care clinics are meeting a need. In a broader sense, their findings also presented a strong case for a reinvestment in and retooling of the primary care system, as a whole.

The use of emergency departments has been on the rise for many years. Contrary to popular belief, a Senate hearing reported that the main increase in traffic is not due to increased utilization by uninsured patients. Instead, the largest increase has been seen in those with private insurance.  The report also listed that "physician office visits have increased at an even higher rate than emergency department visits." They suggest that the concurrent increase in ER visits reflects a growing increase in demands for ambulatory care services, and that some of that demand is spilling over into the ER.

Urgent care clinics, like NextCare Urgent Care, and retail care clinics, like CVS’s “Minute Clinic,” are perfectly poised to benefit from this spillover (and the numbers show that they have).  They are open more hours than primary care offices, and cost less than the emergency rooms.  Granted, if you suddenly lose feeling on the left side of your body and start to slur your speech you are not going to stop to consider this dilemma, but ERs across the country already see a steady stream of people who are not in such life or death situations (ask any ER doc).  In fact, one of the panelists pointed out that nearly 25% of ER visits could be safely seen at other sites.  For the working single mom, whose daughter developed a fever of 101 on Saturday night, a quick Sunday morning visit to the nearest urgent care clinic will no doubt be preferred over an expensive 4 hour long ordeal at the ER.  And their transparent prices make it a feasible option for the cost conscious patient.

Rick Kellerman, former president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), was the panelist representing traditional family physicians. As one might expect, family physicians initially felt threatened by the convenient care movement—especially by retail clinics, which are usually staffed with physician assistants or nurse practitioners. While many of their concerns (fragmentation of medical care, decreased care coordination, “medicalization of symptoms”) persist to this day, Kellerman said that the AAFP eventually told their members that they needed to wake up to the demands of their patients: “If you don’t like retail clinics, change the way you practice.” Subsequently, many physicians responded by offering changes such as extended hours, open appointments for call-ins, “quick clinics” for walk-ins with minor problems, and group appointments for chronic disease management. Many of these doctors have embraced the movement by partnering with clinics in order to get referrals or becoming supervisors of clinics. In forming such partnerships, these physicians are offering their patients a way to get setting of care that hopefully will combine the cost-consciousness and convenience of an urgent care clinic with the benefits of a long-term doctor-patient relationship and better-coordinated care.

While disagreements remain, the facts show that convenient care clinics are increasingly common, while the number of medical students going into family medicine is decreasing.  The convenient care movement has flourished in part because the status quo in health care is failing.  Regardless of what happens to the Affordable Care Act in the upcoming days, policy makers need to work toward a solution to the primary care problem—a solution that includes both convenient care clinics and traditional primary care. Everyone--primary care docs, retail and urgent care clinics, ER docs, and patients can benefit from making sure people are treated in the right place at the right time

If you want to find out more, here’s a link to the materials from the briefing.

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