Medical care on demand more prevalent in NWA

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 275 views 

It used to be that if you lived in Northwest Arkansas and got sick, you either had to wait to get in to see your primary doctor or, if you needed more immediate attention, you went to the emergency room.

In the last decade or so, that scenario has changed as there has been an increase in clinics with expanded hours, walk-in clinics and urgent care clinics. Some of the offerings are through the region’s two major health systems: Mercy and Northwest. Others are privately owned clinics that have opened as the need for such services has increased.

Mercy Health System has had its Convenient Care clinic in Northwest Arkansas for more than 15 years, said Cindy Bosley, executive director of clinic operations at Mercy NWA.

“We saw a need in the community for treating acute illnesses (cough, cold, flu, simple injuries etc.) during regular hours as well as after most of our clinics were closed,” she said. “Opening this clinic helped give our patients a less expensive alternative to an emergency room visit for illnesses that could be treated in an outpatient setting.”

Mercy plans to expand its convenient care hours and urgent care offerings in the future, she added.

By not going to the emergency room for common illnesses or minor injuries, patients are able to save a lot of money, clinic and hospital officials agree. Most after-hours clinics are considered the same level of service as a doctor visit and are billed as such.

Urgent care clinics typically offer expanded services not found in a standard doctor’s office. Insurance policies vary on how they reimburse for urgent care services. Some policies have a separate co-pay for urgent care that is usually more than a standard doctor visit co-pay. Other insurance policies require that all urgent care services be applied to the client’s deductible.

“By providing this service we have reduced the usage of our emergency department for illnesses that could be treated in an outpatient facility. By expanding our hours in urgent care/convenient care we will further help free up the emergency room for true emergencies as well saving our patients a lot of money in care that does not need to occur in an emergency room setting,” Bosley said.

She also said the after hours facilities “will save our patients, literally, thousands of dollars in medical care.”

Our goal is to educate our patients to understand that this setting is a better alternative when an emergency room visit is not actually needed,” Bosley explained.

Dan McKay, CEO of Northwest Health Systems, gave the example of a father who was at one of his son’s sporting events. The son was injured and the father was going to take him to the ER. McKay told him that they had a clinic just down the street that had x-ray capabilities just like the ER but would be faster and much less expensive.

“It acted just like an emergency room in that case,” he said.

Northwest has several clinics throughout the region that offers walk-in access or has expanded hours to accommodate people who need later services.

“That is how the demographics have shifted and healthcare has gone that way. It’s like Starbucks. They want it now and they want it close,” he said.

The growth in Northwest Arkansas has made the need for more healthcare providers and healthcare options necessary, he said.

Northwest also operates the Care Express located in the Walmart on Pleasant Grove Road in Rogers. The Care Express offers walk-in services for minor, acute problems. The Care Express located in Fayetteville closed earlier this month.

Not all clinics have walk-in hours available, but many offer expanded hours. The Community Care Clinics offered in Springdale, Rogers and Siloam Springs offer extended hours at least one night a week, said Kathy Grisham, executive director. Many of their patients don’t have the ability to take off work during the day to see a doctor and others work shifts that don’t make traditional doctor hours convenient.

“You never want someone to not seek healthcare because they might lose their job,” she said. “We also don’t want them to not have a regular medical home because it’s not available.”

Access to healthcare is a major quality of life issue, regional economic development officials agree. Although after hours care and urgent care are not business areas that they specifically recruit for, they do promote what is already available and have worked with existing facilities to find locations for expansion.

“(The clinics) offer more availability and more options,” said Steve Cox, economic development director for the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce.

Recruiting specifically for the walk-in or urgent care option hasn’t been necessary largely because healthcare providers are seeing the need and meeting it on their own.

The local healthcare providers seem to be looking at the market for opportunities for greater access to health care in the form of urgent care and after hour clinics,” said Tom Ginn, director of economic development for the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce. “It will continue to evolve I am sure and with the Affordable Health Care Act gradually coming on line, we will see if the business model supporting these type clinic will work.”

Chung Tan, manager of economic development for the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the walk-in clinics and urgent care clinics are having a positive impact on overall healthcare costs.

“The increase of after hour/urgent care service should reduce visits to the emergency rooms thereby reducing overall healthcare costs for the industry,” she said.