By Bronson Boucher
It seems there’s a new urgent care or minute clinic popping up at every corner, offering a more convenient option for those who get sick or injured. It’s not just your imagination: The number of urgent-care clinics in North Carolina and nationally has soared, with continued growth likely. Chapel Hill-based UNC Health Care has five Triangle area clinics, plus one in Rockingham County, and is adding four more this year in Apex, Garner, Morrisville and Cary. Three more clinics are in the pipeline for 2020.
Atrium Health has 31 urgent-care locations across the Carolinas, including eight that opened in the last five years. The network enables Charlotte-based Atrium “to offer more consumers closer, easier access to a much lower-cost, high-quality health care alternative than the emergency department for acute, episodic health care needs,” says Chris Branner, specialty medical director of urgent-care services. Nationally, the number of such clinics has surged by 37% since 2014.
The centers are part of the multiplying options for dealing with illness, marking a big change from the days when getting sick meant deciding whether to schedule a visit to the doctor’s office or race to the emergency room. Now, the sick can also drive to a nearby clinic, make a phone call to a dedicated service or tap into an internet-based telemedicine program.
Hospitals view urgent-care centers as saving money for both the institution and the patient. The cost difference between a trip to a clinic versus an emergency room is drastic: an average of $162 versus $1,337, UNC Health Care spokesman Tom Hughes says. “We expect that UNC Health Care urgent-care visits will have a price and cost point that is about the same as what a patient would pay for a visit with a primary-care provider,” he says. “We expect this price and cost point to decrease as the use of telemedicine increases.”
With urgent care becoming more in vogue, hospitals need to educate consumers on where to go for different medical situations, says Michael Staples, assistant vice president of Atrium’s urgent-care operations. One option is the system’s website, which includes a simple directive that guides patients to make the correct choice based on the severity of their illness
“Lower-cost, easy-access, on-demand care is still a relatively new concept for most health care consumers,” Branner says. “Generations have grown up only knowing to go to the [emergency department] when they got sick or injured — they didn’t have urgent cares to go to for episodic needs. However, the on-demand health care revolution is consumer driven, and the awareness of lower-cost, high-quality alternatives is gradually increasing.”
In concert with urgent care, many larger N.C. health care systems are taking a more digital-oriented approach to responding to patients. A recognized leader is Greensboro-based Cone Health, which says its digital platform enables customers to interact with caregivers remotely at a lower cost than visiting a physical location. Cone also sees the wisdom of urgent care, operating medical office-based sites in Kernersville and Mebane and a standalone clinic in Greensboro. Cone has seen its volumes grow 30% in its existing locations in the last three years, says Deno Adkins, vice president of ambulatory services.
Cone also recently opened InstaCare clinics in Greensboro and Burlington, catering to patients with high-deductible health plans or no insurance. InstaCare doesn’t require appointments or accept insurance, while offering 24 services that range from treating cuts and rashes to offering wellness exams. Patient costs typically range from $29 to $89, with charges averaging $69, Cone spokesman Doug Allred says.
The new clinics are a response to the so-called “minute clinics” opened by giant retailers Walgreens and CVS that treat patients requiring minimal nursing care. CVS in June said it also plans 1,500 “HealthHUB” locations over the next three years with more than 20% of store space devoted to health services including durable medical equipment and other new products.
In April, Atrium began using Amazon’s Alexa electronic voice system to treat low-risk patients remotely. Alexa directs patients to the nearest urgent care or emergency departments and enables them to set up appointments, system spokeswoman Ashley Brown says.
In addition to patient convenience, construction of urgent-care clinics tends to be much less expensive — as much as a third lower — than expanding existing hospitals. UNC Health Care spent about $3.4 million for its west Raleigh clinic in 2016, including land cost, according to Wake County real estate data.
“Consumers are asking for alternatives to the traditional health care model for acute episodic health care needs — lower cost, high quality, easy access and flexible hours,” Atrium’s Staples says. “We are moving to a smaller footprint, more retail-oriented spaces, to provide convenience to our patients.”