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Being able to see a doctor after work hours (sometimes, until midnight), on weekends, and even on many holidays, is rapidly gaining converts to the urgent-care sector. And the centers are truly a walk-in service: a referral from a primary care physician is not usually necessary (online databases allow access to a patient’s medical records, if the primary care physician’s office participates in such a service).
“The trend we are seeing,” says Martin, “is that individuals are very, very busy, and they want healthcare services available to them on their own time. We serve that niche for the community, and it’s been very well received.” In addition, Martin points out, urgent-care centers make it possible for people to get a problem checked out that they might otherwise ignore. “When you have deadlines at work, and you’re taking the kids to practice, and both parents are working, you wait until you are really in a lot of pain or very ill to seek a physician,” he says of the usual doctor’s office option. And while that office may be willing to fit in a patient’s emergency during office hours, doing so strains both the medical office and the patience of others who have waited weeks or months for their appointment.
Urgent care administrators know that customer satisfaction is their bread and butter. At Emergency One, says Martin, “we track the total patient duration time—the time from when they check in to check out—and modulate our staffing patterns accordingly. And we constantly solicit feedback through surveys. (When is the last time you were asked to fill out a satisfaction survey at your doctor’s office or emergency room?) A recent national survey, conducted by the National Headache Foundation, asked people who sought help for migraine headaches about their experiences at emergency rooms and urgent-care centers. At the centers, two-thirds of people waited less than an hour for treatment, 58 percent said their diagnosis was clearly explained, and 43 percent were given a clear home-care plan before leaving. By comparison, two-thirds of people visiting emergency rooms waited more than an hour, 38 percent received a well-explained diagnosis, and 17 percent were given a home-care plan. In addition, 67 percent of urgent-care visitors said they were treated politely and respectfully, compared to only 38 percent who said so about their emergency room experience.
Another angle to consumer appeal is ambiance. The founders of FirstCare Walk-In Medical Center in Highland intentionally designed their center so that customers would feel relaxed from the moment they walk in, says Dr. Stephen Weinman. He and his father, also a doctor, and Weinman’s sister, an emergency room assistant, created a spa-like setting to banish any sense of a typical emergency room. “It’s difficult to begin the healing process in the ER because it’s noisy, busy, and people are uptight,” Weinman says, speaking from 15 years’ experience as an ER doctor. “There are a thousand details that went into giving our center a completely different feel, from the open airy spaces, to the waterfall, the artwork, the colors—it took us two months just to find chairs that are beautiful, functional, and comfortable.” The center has a children’s room where decorations of tropical fish hang from the ceiling and large-screen TVs in every room that show tropical fish or birds. There’s WiFi, and a coffee/tea bar in the waiting area. And Weinman refused to install those sliding glass windows that separate nurses from patients in most medical offices (to meet patient privacy laws). “They form a barrier,” says Weinman. “Instead, we’ve trained our staff not to talk about patients and their problems where others can hear.” Weinman also selected and trained his staff to be warm and caring, because “customers are sick, they don’t want to be there. So we want to be sure our staff are smiling and happy. We have a good time.” That’s not a comment most folks laud on their emergency room visits.