By Michelle Miller
---- — There has been a growth in the number of urgent care centers, not only in the state, but nationally.
According to the Urgent Care Association of America, there are more than 300 urgent care centers in New York and more than 8,700 centers nationwide.
While some experts say that urgent care centers should not replace the need for a primary care physician, and emergency rooms are there for serious injuries, they are filling a niche.
Dr. August Leinhart, who practices family practice and emergency medicine at Bassett Medical Center, said access to primary care is not good in many communities so urgent care centers or walk-in clinics can fill the gap.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, as of June 2011, there are
66,615,059 people living in a primary care Health Professional Shortage Area in the United States. A 2009 study by the National Association of Community Health Centers placed the number of individuals “lacking access to primary care” at 60 million. Only 2 years earlier that number was at 56 million.
The intent is not to replace primary care or ER services, but to provide an in-between option for patients with illnesses and injuries that need to be seen, he said.
“It is directed at patients that need to be seen that day, but who are not experiencing life-threatening emergencies,” Leinhart explained. “We have recognized a need for that kind service. It serves as an alternative.”
Common illnesses treated include abscesses, sore throats and coughs, Leinhart added.
Bassett Healthcare Network spokeswoman Karen Huxtable-Hooker said studies show that many patients who visit emergency rooms have conditions that can be appropriately cared for in an urgent care center.
“Urgent care centers can help take the burden off area emergency departments to deal with truly emergent conditions such as chest pain, difficulty breathing and major injuries or bleeding,” she said.
Bassett has rebranded its urgent care facilities by calling them convenient care centers.
“That seemed more appropriate because that is what they are, convenient for the patients. We have made it even more convenient for our patients because they can now make appointments ahead of time,” Leinhart said.
Huxtable-Hooker said the centers still take in walk-ins, but by scheduling ahead of time patients can avoid waiting in the waiting area for a long time.
Bassett Healthcare Network has two centers, one in Oneonta and the other in Herkimer. Leinhart said the Herkimer site generally sees more patients than the Oneonta site, which he says averages 50 to 60 patients a day.
A patient’s decision to go to an urgent care facility can sometimes be more cost-effective for both the consumer and insurance companies, according to Leinhart. There are generally higher co-pays and fees associated with having to go to a hospital, he explained.
“It is hard to say whether or not it is the quickest option for patients because that depends on a lot of factors such as the time of day,” Leinhart said. “The ER is much busier at noon compared to say 7 a.m. There are not many alternatives, so it does at least provide patients with another option.”
Leinhart said if patients are unsure if urgent or convenient care is the right choice, they can call ahead of time to get help making that decision.
Bassett’s new model of scheduling appointments has been well-received, according to Leinhart.
“Those who can’t be accommodated by their primary doctor can schedule to come in and get similar care, but can get in much quicker,” he said.
The Bassett doctor said he feels more people might go see a doctor if given an alternative to having to see a primary physician.
“There are still plenty of Americans without primary care and those without insurance. It also fills that kind of niche in the health system,” he said.
According to the Urgent Care Association of America, whether or not patients have a formal relationship with a primary care or “regular” physician, there is a current national challenge in accessing care, especially on an “urgent” basis: with no appointment, evenings, weekends and holidays. In contrast to traditional physician offices, urgent care centers are by design already open evenings, weekends and holidays and do not require appointments to see patients.
Bassett’s two sites are closed on major holidays, but are open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on weekends from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
To contact the Herkimer convenient care facility call, (315) 867-2884. To contact the Oneonta site, call 433-6400.