DANBURY — The medical landscape continues to change as urgent-care centers open at a rapid pace throughout the state and country.
Urgent care center directors say their facilities offer a faster and more affordable alternative to hospital emergency room visits and a no-appointment-necessary substitute to a primary care physician office visit.
“We keep the burden off the ERs, that’s the key,” Dr. Matthew Amara of Beyond Urgent Care said. “They have enough on their plates with the really complex stuff: trauma, strokes, heart attacks, infants. It’s a different model, but a healthy model for communities. It’s all about access.”
Urgent care centers offer services such as cold and flu treatment, physicals, blood tests, laceration and sprained joint care, and travel medicine. Many have their own X-ray rooms. They also have extended hours and accept most insurances, including Husky, the state’s Medicaid program.
“We treat all sorts of things for people of all ages,” Jeremy Winter, director of Beyond Urgent Care, said. “Anything non-life threatening we do. Bumps, bruises, lab services — soup to nuts. We’re open-door family medicine.”
Amara added: “It’s old-fashioned medicine in a different type of venue.”
The model is working as patients visit urgent care centers at a rapid pace. Amara said he saw 64 patients in one day last week at the Bethel office, mostly with flu-related symptoms. He said he averages about 35 patients a day.
Dr. Steven Heffer, owner and medical director of AFC Urgent Care in Bridgeport and Fairfield, sees patients at a brisk pace, as well. Since opening on Boston Avenue in Bridgeport in 2014, that location has seen 50,000 patients, he said, adding that he typically sees 60 to 100 patients each day.
Heffer is also expanding as a Shelton office will open soon. There are two AFC Urgent Centers in Danbury.
“In this day and age people are looking for quick and quality medical care and they get that at urgent care,” Heffer said. “Long lines at emergency rooms have made urgent cares necessary. The cost of a visit to an urgent care center is a fraction of what it is for an ER visit. And the wait can be hours at an ER.”
According to the Urgent Care Association of America, there are approximately 7,000 centers in the U.S. and more than 20,000 physicians working at an urgent care center. The trend is relatively new in the Northeast.
“New England is late to the party,” Winter said. “They started in vacation spots, but the model expanded and evolved into mainstream America.”
The hospital view
Hospitals have adapted their models to include off-site urgent care centers and telemedicine, where a patient calls a doctor for a diagnosis and prescription.
“Health care is evolving with many new and innovative care models,” Andrea Rynn, spokesperson for Western Connecticut Health Network, said. “WCHN has implemented urgent care, fast track and even telemedicine models in our emergency departments as well as extended office hours and soon, telemedicine in Western Connecticut Medical Group primary care practices, all to provide the most convenient access to high quality care.”
WCNH includes Danbury, New Milford and Norwalk hospitals.
Rynn said the hospitals appreciate the role played by independent urgent care centers in providing access to medical care.
“Community-based urgent care centers also play a role and are becoming more popular throughout the state,” Rynn added. “We work collaboratively with many of these care centers, understanding there is a role for each of us in expanding access to care in our communities.”
Winter said other areas of medicine, such as dental and orthopedics, are adopting the urgent care model, as well.
Urgent care centers also see themselves as a complement to, rather than competition for, primary care physicians. Amara said a growing population has overwhelmed family physicians and scheduling an appointment can sometimes take weeks or months.
“Because of population expansion, within a year it’s a challenge for a primary practice,” Amara said. “The goal is not to take away from primary care.”
“We don’t see ourselves as a replacement to primary care, but more as assisting them,” Heffer added. “Their schedules are filled with patients who have appointments.”
Heffer said the busiest time for his centers are after 5 p.m. His new Bridgeport location is open until 10 p.m.
Amara enjoys working at urgent care centers because of the variety of cases he sees on a daily basis. Winter added that urgent care is attractive to some doctors because there is less administrative burden than at hospitals.
“As a doctor, you get to use all your skill sets,” Amara said. “You get to see a wide variety. It keeps you on your toes. You see something different with every patient.”
Heffer agrees: “From moths flying into people’s ears to infection diseases to strep throat, you never know what will walk through the door next. It makes it fun and exciting. We’re able to treat the majority of cases.”
There are cases, however, that are beyond the scope of an urgent care center. Patients with life-threatening injuries are transported to the nearest hospital.
“We try to keep people out of the ER, but if that’s where they need to be, that’s where they need to be,” Amara said.
As a business model, Winter and Amara saw urgent care centers as an opportunity and need in the community. They are about to open their third facility and, according to Winter, are looking to expand further.
“You can build one and not break the bank,” Winter said. “It’s extremely cost-effective to build one, especially since it’s a medical facility. With the market growth and patient flow we’ve seen, people love it. I see urgent care centers as the future of medicine. There is tremendous growth opportunities. It’s what the public needs now.”