With the onset of cold and flu season, your patients are likely going to visit urgent care centers. These centers are quickly popping up around the nation and attracting more and more patient utilization. This proliferation has many primary care providers (PCPs) worried, especially as statistics from the Health Care Cost Institute show that office visits to PCPs declined by 18% from 2012 to 2016.
However, the rise of urgent cares does not spell the doom of primary care. Consumers visit urgent care because they want convenient access to healthcare on their schedule; PCPs are fully capable of addressing this consumer demand. In fact, by taking a step back and considering why patients use urgent care, there are adjustments practices can make to position themselves to attract patients rather than watching them go elsewhere for quick care and, in the process, exit the primary care setting, jeopardizing the patient-provider relationship.
1. Provide Care When Patients Need It
Extending your hours of service and offering weekend visit slots can markedly improve convenience for patients. Different options could be:
- Opening early a few days a week
- Staying open until 7 p.m. on weekdays
- Adding a half-day on Saturdays
Data show that after-hours access to primary care is linked to fewer emergency department visits and unmet health needs. Talk to your patients and get their feedback on when they’d ideally like to be able to schedule appointments. If your practice can accommodate these extended times, this will help you stay competitive.
2. Advertise or Take Walk-in Patients
As mentioned, urgent care is all about convenience. If your practice has the ability to take walk-in patients, make sure you advertise that service so your patients are aware they can access this. If you are not currently able to offer walk-ins, you may consider hiring an NP/PA in the future — or working with a healthcare staffing agency to address the need immediately — to open your practice to walk-in access for patients. The $18 billion urgent care center industry has grown approximately 5.8 percent in this year alone due to their ability to accommodate walk-in patients’ needs.
3. Leverage Telehealth Visits
Providing care does not necessarily mean in-person care. Seventy percent of healthcare organizations are offering some form of telehealth and 77 percent of consumers would consider seeing a provider virtually. Offering telehealth services may make patients more likely to schedule an appointment with your office rather than visiting a nearby urgent care center. Especially if you have patients that need to travel long distances to reach your office, telehealth options can ensure that they check in with you before defaulting to urgent care that may be closer. Another great telehealth application is wellness visits, especially for children, who will have more than 30 wellness visits before they’re five years old. Those commutes add up fast, so help save your patients some time!
A study of almost 35,000 online reviews found that 96 percent of complaints were customer service-related.
4. Get to Know Providers at the Urgent Care Centers in Your Area
As mentioned in Physicians Practice, “Find out all you can about these [urgent care centers in your area], and discover what you have to offer patients that they don’t.” There may even be areas for collaboration and referrals between you and urgent care. You can introduce yourself to the providers at the urgent care in your area and let them know that you are available for consultations should a patient come in with unusual symptoms. You may even leave business cards with your location, hours of operation, and website where patients can fill out intake forms and check their insurance coverage. While you’re at it, take some of theirs and start building a mutually beneficial network of cross-referrals.
5. Increase Office Efficiency
Urgent care centers are often large businesses. With that comes teams of analysts, marketers, consultants, and strategists all working to streamline business operation so that the care centers operate smoothly. Luckily, there are some simple ways to increase office efficiency, such as leveraging a user-friendly electronic health record (EHR), offering online scheduling, utilizing a patient portal, and making sure your check-in process is streamlined by uploading intake forms to your website. A patient portal enables your patient to receive continued care from the comfort of their own home, keeping them engaged and at ease while they recover.
In our “Peak Practice Performance” series, we examine methods such as patient feedback surveys to find your patients’ pain points, online reputation management to ensure you’re not buried by search engines, and calculations to reveal how to best allocate your work hours. Breaking these into small, achievable goals is one way to optimize your practice’s efficiency.
6. Remind Staff to be Friendly and Patient
A study of almost 35,000 online reviews found that 96 percent of complaints were customer service-related. Front office staff are often the face and voice of a practice, before, during, and after a patient’s visit. A compassionate and thorough team at your front desk results in a better patient experience and more likelihood that people will return to your practice. It is important to remind staff that all interactions impact the perception of your practice, whether they are face-to-face, over the phone, or via digital channels. Motivate your staff to be service-oriented, respectful, and effective communicators.
7. Be a Good Community Partner
Being visible and engaged in your community is important. Consider sponsoring or volunteering at events, like 5k runs or local sporting activities. Positioning yourself as a community figure and contributing partner in the lives of your patients will help you come to top-of-mind when care is needed. Not only can this involvement advertise your practice, but can also reduce stress levels and lengthen your lifespan, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The Balancing Act
It is important to note that not all urgent care centers are created equal. Those that are tied to a hospital often lead to higher costs for patients and employers because the urgent care acts as a funnel to channel patients into the health system. However independent urgent care centers can help save patients money and reduce waste in the healthcare system by providing an option rather than going straight to the emergency department.
The rise of urgent care centers is nothing to take lightly, and PCPs do need to take action in order to maintain a solid standing with patients (particularly those of the younger generations).
That said, I’m confident in the continued relevance and strength of primary care practices. With slight changes, your practice can be seen by patients as a convenient and clear choice when they need immediate care.
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