In recent years, emergency rooms have become overcrowded, the number of traditional doctor’s offices available has declined, and healthcare costs have steadily increased. Because of these changes, several new alternatives have become available, changing patient care and how marketers promote it.
Traditional clinics have historically been the first choice for seeking treatment, including old standbys like the doctor’s office, urgent care and the hospital emergency room. Doctor’s offices and urgent care clinics can have long lines for patients, and an urgent care experience can sometimes seem rushed or impersonal since patients aren’t dealing with their regular doctor. Hospital emergency rooms are also seeing high patient volumes, with nearly 27% of visits that could be handled at an urgent care clinic. With this strain on the traditional clinic system, new options are emerging to meet patient demand.
From the chaos of long lines and the uncomfortable feeling patients get when being treated by an unfamiliar physician comes a fast and comfortable solution: hybrid clinics. These freestanding clinics fall somewhere between urgent care and a hospital emergency room. They are either physician or association owned and not affiliated with a hospital. They are focused on comfort and eliminating the wait time while treating patients with a full staff of board-certified doctors and trained emergency professionals. Hybrids can do just about everything that an ER can handle, including lab work. Hybrids cannot accept ambulances but usually have one waiting so high-level emergencies (about 3-5% of patients) can be quickly sent to the hospital. Costs may vary, but patients shouldn’t be surprised to see emergency room pricing in hybrid clinics.
At a concierge-style clinic, patients periodically pay a retainer to cover primary care services. Concierge care clinics cannot accept insurance, but some HSA reimbursement may be available depending upon the physician and procedures. Because concierge care doesn’t cover hospital costs, patients are also advised to have high deductible insurance because in case of emergency. Traditional physicians are increasingly switching to this type of clinic to maintain their personal relationships with patients.
FREE-STANDING EMERGENCY DEPARTMENTS
The private emergency room is growing in popularity across the country. Freestanding emergency departments (FEDs) were first legalized in Texas in 2009, and many states still have legal restrictions in place for FEDs that aren’t part of a health system. FEDs have shorter wait times and fewer restrictions than a hospital with the same board-certified physicians and staff. Like hybrids, they cannot accept ambulances, and 3-5% of patients need to be transferred to a hospital emergency room. Costly procedures can be a deterrent for patients, and while the system is rapidly changing, Medicare and Medicaid are not accepted at most FEDs unless they are affiliated with a hospital system.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR HEALTHCARE
- Patients — With a growing variety of clinic options, patients can choose the system they feel best suits their lifestyle and immediate needs, although a lack of education often leads to seeking the wrong type of treatment (i.e. getting a couple of stitches in the hospital ER). Varying price structures also make for a wide range of costs, and patients can be blindsided with large bills from urgent care clinics that price their services like a hospital ER.
- Physicians — New clinics provide potentially better schedule options for physicians, and concierge care allows for more face-to-face time with patients. But this system can be risky for physicians that have patients who require attention often, as the patients do not pay additional fees for these visits.
- Hospitals — The lines between urgent care and the ER are being blurred. Patient education is a growing challenge as clinics become more and more ambiguous. Because patients have difficulty determining where to seek treatment, some cases, which would have been treatable in the emergency room, will be transferred to the hospital too late to administer appropriate care. Patients may also feel taken advantage of when charged higher rates for treatment at the ER than they would pay at urgent care. There is a large opportunity for hospitals to open their own freestanding emergency departments to serve a larger footprint.
- Marketers — As hospitals and physicians adapt to the changing urgent care environment, smart marketers are poised to take advantage of these new demands and options. In addition to touting personal, concierge-style care in any urgent care environment, patient education programs will be huge for hospitals to communicate with patients and point them in the right direction. As always, convenience must be paramount in marketing, with emphasis on a variety of options for visits, payment, physicians and treatment.
See our recent campaign for walk-in treatment at Sanford Health for a look at how healthcare organizations can make their marketing friendly, patient-focused and at the forefront of emerging urgent care trends.