Guest Column | November 6, 2020

Urgent Care Emerges, Evolves During Pandemic

By Monte Sandler, Experity

COVID 19 New Normal

The U.S. healthcare system has an opportunity for improvement this fall. Its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March exposed acute issues, such as a lack of readily available personal protective equipment (PPE). It also called into question how to deliver adequate care when hospitals reached maximum capacities and access to routine care and COVID-19 testing remained scarce.

The healthcare system strained in the early stages of the pandemic because it did not utilize every avenue for care. For instance, after President Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency on March 13, patient visit volumes at urgent care clinics across the country dropped dramatically despite clinics remaining open while hospitals were filling beyond capacity. Because of the lack of effective communication and protocol, patients reported to hospital emergency departments more than usual with concerns that would have been better handled at an urgent care.

As we enter the fall and winter months that coincide with flu season, healthcare leaders must apply the lessons learned at the start of the pandemic to avoid similar issues in the delivery of care. The 10,000 urgent care clinics in the U.S. are key players in testing and vaccinating patients – both for the flu and COVID-19 – and can help hospitals effectively treat the patients that require hospitalization.

Urgent Care Evolves During Pandemic, But Questions Remain

As the healthcare system faces new challenges from the pandemic, urgent care can help solve for them with its existing solutions. One of those challenges: managing high patient volumes. Many urgent care clinics in the U.S. have seen visit volume numbers since July that match or exceed their highest in a typical year, and flu season always results in additional visits. Existing technology integrations in the urgent care infrastructure make clinics an ideal vehicle for mass immunizations, diagnostic testing, and treating day-to-day illnesses quickly and efficiently.

Tech functionality that provides online appointment scheduling, monitors wait times, and helps staff avoid unnecessary paperwork all lends to moving patients in and out of the clinic quickly. And since the urgent care model is built for high patient volumes, it can continue to manage them effectively. I expect volumes will remain high well beyond the time COVID-19 vaccines are widely distributed – which might not happen until the fall of 2021.

Another challenge in the healthcare system is securing longitudinal care for patients. The pandemic put the shortcomings of our current primary care system under a microscope, revealing how difficult it can be for patients to receive consistent care over long periods. A recent Blue Cross Blue Shield study found that approximately one-third of millennials don’t have a primary care physician, which can become problematic for receiving clinical information about patients who test positive for COVID-19.

Vaccinations add to this complexity. Several of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates will require multiple doses weeks apart, which means that patients will need follow-up and long-term care from providers. This is another key advantage for the urgent care industry since it has been converging with primary care for years and many clinics already have established longitudinal care capabilities in place, such as long-term patient health record data.

We also need to build a sustainable model for telehealth implementation. Once a niche functionality, telehealth helps providers see patients with non-emergent conditions while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 exposure. While some private insurers typically reimburse less for telehealth than for in-person visits, many of them made an exception to that rule during the pandemic. With those temporary measures set to expire in many states, I believe public pressure and the influence of healthcare providers who enjoy using telehealth will lead to a long-term reimbursement solution that makes telehealth treatment a viable option moving forward.

While the volume of telehealth visits remains much lower than in-person visits, virtual care is here to stay because it allows physicians to see more patients in a shorter period, balance patient visits between more and less busy clinics, and reduce the risk of infection. I expect to see urgent cares expand their use of telehealth and introduce more ways to connect with patients outside the walls of their clinics.

The Months Ahead

The initial surge of COVID-19 was an unprecedented challenge for our healthcare system, but hindsight allows us to evaluate what did and didn’t work. Moving ahead, the industry has a renewed opportunity to better affect change through vaccination campaigns and by limiting surges in patient visits.

Now more than ever, urgent care has solidified its critical role within the healthcare ecosystem. Its nimble business model and foundational reliance on cutting-edge technology offer solutions that not only mitigate patient surges in the pandemic but will better shape the future of healthcare. As we move into the thick of fall and build a vaccination plan for flu and COVID-19, urgent care clinics sit firmly at its center and will influence how we respond to future health crises.

About The Author

Monte Sandler is the Executive Vice President of Revenue Cycle Management at Experity, a leading provider of integrated technology solutions that power urgent care.