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Photo: Experity

In 2020 alone, urgent care clinics saw a 58% increase in visit volumes due to the demand for COVID-19-related episodic care, with testing and vaccinations accounting for more than 60% of total visits, according to the latest research from urgent care software company Experity, which surveyed half of U.S. clinics.

Of the 28 million patients who visited these clinics in 2020, almost half were new visitors. How can urgent care clinics retain these patients beyond the pandemic? How can they shift the perception of urgent care from an option for minor, national college of naturopathic medicine portland episodic issues, and as an emergency room replacement, to what is now an expanding, one-stop-shop for on-demand care, such as primary care services?

Dr. David Stern is uniquely qualified to answer this and other urgent care questions. He is a practicing urgent care physician, CEO of Experity and vice president of the Coalition for Urgent Care Access. Healthcare IT News interviewed him to get his expert analysis on the state of urgent care, and where IT can help.

Q. Your research found urgent care clinics saw a 58% increase in visit volumes due to the demand for COVID-19-related, episodic care in 2020. How can urgent care clinics retain these new patients and shift the perception of urgent care to a one-stop-shop for on-demand care?

A. During the pandemic, the U.S. urgent care industry demonstrated its unmatched ability to adapt to unprecedented, rapid industry changes, and the market’s collective response further cemented urgent care’s importance as a key player in the country’s care continuum.

The pandemic gave clinics the opportunity to serve as the go-to option for so many patients [who] needed accessible, episodic, COVID-related care. Of the COVID-19 tests administered to date, it is estimated that urgent cares administered about 70 million nationwide. This unmatched activity also drove an influx of visits from new patients, which presents an opportunity for post-pandemic business growth.

Our latest research, based on analysis of data from nearly 5,000 urgent care clinics, about half of the entire U.S. market, shows that patients visited urgent care in record numbers during 2020. Clinics on average experienced a 58% increase in visit volume during the pandemic, and more than half (55%) of all urgent care visits in 2020 were COVID-related.

And within the record-breaking number of visits were a lot of new patients, according to Experity data. Urgent care centers saw 48% more new patients in 2020 than in previous years.

This influx of new patients presents the biggest opportunity for urgent care growth coming out of the pandemic, as providers can turn these single-visit volumes into multiples in the coming years.

To do so, clinics will need a strategy to nurture relationships with these new patients and turn them into return visitors. While there is no “one size fits all” playbook for clinics to follow, many clinics are investing in targeted, strategic marketing efforts as part of their strategies to nurture these new patient relationships.

Q. What role does healthcare information technology play in helping urgent care clinics move into new ground when the pandemic is over?

A. The industry evolution triggered by the pandemic has amplified the need for clinics to have an urgent care operating system built specifically to run the full, end-to-end, urgent care experience for providers. To navigate a changing landscape and meet evolving patient demands, urgent cares are relying on flexible, adaptable operating systems to function optimally, expedite their workflows, and bolster revenue cycle management (RCM) more than they ever have before.

Moving forward, urgent cares will need all the capabilities of industry-specific operating systems to build upon the momentum experienced during the pandemic. HIT solutions that contribute the most value to urgent cares must be purpose-built for and by urgent care, specifically designed to address the nuances of practice management, patient engagement, business intelligence, billing, etc.

Tailor-made technology contributes to the business success of urgent care clinics by driving operational excellence for these unique business models and helping to create an exceptional experience for patients.

Consumers want digital conveniences in healthcare that they are accustomed to everywhere else. Be it through a clinic website or some other online service, they expect to do more things online such as searching for a provider and assessing wait times, checking into the clinic, accessing health records, and paying bills.

Additionally, telehealth functionalities enable more pre-appointment work to be done at the patient’s convenience, from triaging risks of potential exposure or infection before arrival to facilitating symptom intake forms over the phone. All these technology capabilities spur a digital-first experience, which is crucial in meeting patients’ expectations for convenient care.

Urgent care centers need software solutions made specifically for the on-demand environment. For example, many ambulatory clinics allow patients to schedule online appointments. However, the typical medical office slots of 15, 20 or 30 minutes don’t work well in urgent care, because on-demand healthcare does not have the concept of appointment slots, but rather dynamic queues of patients.

Since these clinics have unpredictable patient flows, with walk-ins with fractures, lacerations and serious nose bleeds, these clinics need a queueing software that dynamically understands the current patient volume and flows. And the system needs to dynamically communicate the estimated time for patient visits based on the actual volumes of patients in the queue.

Thus, the typical static appointment slot software seen in ambulatory patient engagement solutions is almost worthless in the dynamic queuing ecosystem of urgent care.

Q. What is an example of how health IT has helped you in your clients expand the role of urgent care?

A. We’ve seen countless examples of urgent care clinics leveraging technology solutions to enhance their business offerings since the start of 2020 and build upon the momentum generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, CityMD, New York City’s largest urgent care provider, responded rapidly to the pandemic, implementing vast COVID-19 testing capabilities. However, their capability to do large-scale testing did not fit their standard walk-in model, and hundreds of patients were forming lines multiple blocks long and waiting hours to get their tests.

This created an untenable situation with patients potentially infected with the virus standing in line with hundreds of uninfected patients. The lines were so prevalent that the local network news stations carried stories about the problem.

In December 2020, CityMD introduced an urgent care-specific queuing and texting software solution. Now the clinics controlled a virtual queue and used the solution’s texting technology to call in patients and get them tested in rapid succession. Overnight, the lines around the city blocks of New York City disappeared.

By adopting enhanced digital patient engagement capabilities designed specifically for managing high patient volumes, this provider optimized its ability to handle the high demand for testing while making scheduling processes for patients more efficient. Offering a user-friendly channel to schedule an appointment while waiting elsewhere very quickly improved the provider’s Net Promoter Score.

With shortened wait times, this implementation also allowed staff to spend more time with each patient through a more streamlined workflow, improving both the patient and provider experiences. This enhanced efficiency and functionality enables urgent cares to adapt to industry changes and adopt expanded offerings for growing patient populations, helping to position them optimally for a continuously growing role in the care continuum.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish with your work through the Coalition for Urgent Care Access, which you helped found?

A. We’ve been serving as the urgent care industry’s top trusted business partner for decades, and in light of everything that’s changed in healthcare in recent years, we felt it was time to elevate our efforts in supporting the overall growth of the industry in new ways.

By forming the Coalition for Urgent Care Access, we’ve fully embraced the responsibility of advocating for urgent care providers at the national level, and through this coalition, Experity plans to give the industry a national voice. Alongside an impressive group of urgent care leaders and organizations, we are carrying out our founding commitment to elevate and support urgent care as it becomes an increasingly important segment of the evolving healthcare marketplace.

We cannot overlook or deny the fact that urgent cares can fulfill a wide range of care needs for individuals across the nation. Urgent cares have the infrastructure required to deliver high-volume care and are uniquely positioned to reach rural communities, at-risk populations and young adults, which carries even greater importance during times of increased need for episodic care, like we’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experity has consistently invested on behalf of our customers, and by putting forth more efforts on a national level, we hope to support the urgent care industry’s needs now and moving forward. The growth of urgent cares will help to improve the U.S. healthcare system and the care it provides by advancing accessible, convenient, affordable, high-quality care for the masses.

The consumerization of healthcare has been picking up speed for years, and urgent cares are making it a reality. By increasing our efforts as an industry advocate, we’re continuing to find more ways to honor our goal of fueling the patient-centered healthcare revolution. It is exciting work and we’re just getting started.

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
Email the writer: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

 

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