Urgent Care Clinics are Coming to Snowbirds

While entertaining visitors from “up north,” Mary Snowbird dropped a kitchen knife on her foot leaving a nasty gash that required considerable suturing, as well as pain killers and antibiotics to fend off infection.

Ordinarily, that would be enough to ruin anybody’s dinner party.  But, thanks to the new Urgent Care clinic that recently opened two blocks away from her Florida condo, Mary’s foot was quickly sutured, x-rayed to ascertain the extent of  injury, and she was released in time to rejoin her guests for desert. The bill: $175 USD. By comparison, a year earlier, Mary’s husband had to be taken to a hospital Emergency Room across town for a painful middle ear infection. That cost him one hour’s traveling time, two more in the waiting room, plus a bill for $500 USD.

What changed? Nothing to do with Obamacare; but everything to do with the accelerating presence of a new player in the front line of America’s unruly health care system. I’m referring to the phenomenal expansion of Urgent Care clinics specifically built and equipped to handle non-emergency or non-life threatening conditions on a walk-in basis, quickly and cheaply. And they’re coming to a neighborhood close to you.

Up to now, the hospital emergency room has been the only refuge, whether for a sprained ankle or an abdominal aortic aneurysm. And how many times have you had a nagging abdominal pain, or shortness of breath—uncomfortable enough to concern you– but not “serious” enough to send you to the ER right away, where you would spend a few, very expensive hours.

I live in South Florida, within a mile of two large, highly-respected, multi-disciplinary hospitals. And within the past few months I have seen four new urgent care clinics open for business within this small geographical circle, some owned by hospitals expanding their referral base, others by private investors who know when they see a good thing. But this is not only a Florida story. According to the New York Times, private investment equity firms have, since 2008, sunk $2.3 billion into urgent care clinics.  And hospital groups and health insurance companies are right behind them.

The Urgent Care Association of America, which represents more than 2,600 clinics nationwide, estimates there are now more than 9,000 UC clinics in the U.S. and new ones opening every day. Staffed by qualified professionals, including on premise doctors, nursing staff, labs, and imaging equipment, the clinics are situated where their patients live, play and shop. They are constructed with efficiency and accessibility in mind; open for extended hours and holiday weekends, and their business model is right out of the Walmart playbook: low margin, high volume, give patients what they want at a price they can afford, form a link with them and get them coming back.

The Urgent Care Association of America, which represents more than 2,600 clinics nationwide, estimates there are  now more than 9000 UC clinics in the U.S.  And you know this is a serious initiative when private equity investors become interested.

How might this affect you?

The medical insurance policy under which you are traveling most likely allows you to go to an outpatient, urgent care or walk-in clinic if you feel that’s the level of service you need. If at all possible, call your emergency assistance service at the number on your travel Insurance ID card first. However, if it’s not possible or practical to call ahead, get to the clinic and have staff or someone travelling with you make the call.

Most insurers will encourage you to go to a clinic first, if it doesn’t endanger you. If you feel you need a higher level of care—or if you’re experiencing familiar symptoms you know will require an emergency level of care, get to the ER as quickly and safely as you can.

One reliable research study has shown that approximately 17 percent of ER visits were unnecessary; another indicated that up to 27 percent of all emergency room visits could have been handled at urgent care, or other walk-in clinics.

So what is urgent care? Make no mistake, it is not a substitute for an emergency condition—one that can permanently impair or endanger your life, Urgent care encompasses accidents and falls, mid to moderate breathing difficulties, diagnostic services including x-rays and lab tests, minor broken bones, urinary tract infections – generally those conditions and ailments that need treatment soon but don’t require an ambulance to rush you to the ER.

Look around you. Identify the UC clinic closest to you (that won’t be hard). The great majority will accept travel insurance, but if not yet, they will soon enough. In the meantime they will accept your credit card and you can be reimbursed by your insurer when you get home.

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