A year of constantly shifting gears to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and meet patient needs further solidified the essential role urgent cares play during large-scale public health crises. Subsequently, the pandemic is continuing to change the way patients use and view urgent care. By the end of 2020, urgent care saw a 58% increase in visit volumes on average, and Covid-19 testing and vaccinations had accounted for 60% of all visits. New patient volumes increased by 23% over the same year, saving urgent care from plummeting reimbursement rates, which had declined due to the lower acuity, Covid-related care being provided. As it stands today, visit volumes have now reached (and in some cases exceeded) their winter peaks volumes levels, adding to volatility in 2021.
While patient volumes surged and crashed, as did anxieties and expectations, urgent care providers learned to adapt and pivot from normal operations to what was clearly becoming the “new normal.” As the nation’s Covid response continues to evolve with variants, urgent care are continuing to adapt daily. The resilience and agile business acumen they showcased has permanently changed the perception and elevated the purpose of the urgent care market during and beyond public health crises. As urgent cares continue to evolve and elevate their business model and services to effectively deliver high-volume healthcare to the masses, there are a handful of key strategies leading clinics should implement, and many are already implementing, as they step into the new, pandemic-driven era of urgent care.
- Embrace the Role of Primary Care Provider
A growing number of urgent cares are expanding service lines and can simply no longer be considered as just a one-stop shop for episodic care. On average, a third of urgent care patients don’t have a primary care provider, making their local facility an ideal place for them to seek those services. Many of these patients lack the time, interest, or resources to follow traditionally recommended wellness visit schedules. In an on-demand world, it’s strategic for urgent care to transform into hybrid clinics that offer the primary care services so many patients need, but through the modern, convenient experience they want.
The seed for growing repeat business through primary care offerings is planted during the first visit. A successful hybrid model is high-touch and communicates effectively across the business laterals through software and technology for scheduling and referrals. Providers need access to high-level overviews of patients’ visit histories and active problem summaries, which allow for the identification of chronic conditions that may require additional visits or check-ins at another level of care. Urgent care improves patient access to quality care and in turn reap the financial benefits of increased care delivered and repeat patient loyalty.
- Maximize Occupational Medicine Offerings
Occupational medicine (OccMed) encompasses the services that employers need for hiring and compliance and is a natural extension for most urgent care. Services often include drug screenings, physicals, workers’ compensation injury care, employee wellness programs, and worksite immunizations. No additional space or staff is required to offer these services. By cross-training existing staff to provide these services, clinics can add more, and long-term, streams of revenue and build stronger ties in the communities they serve.
The global health crisis has expanded the scope of occupational medicine. Beyond its traditional use-cases, occupational medicine is viewed by employers as the keystone to safely getting back to the office through Covid-testing and vaccinations. In addition to Covid-related services, workplaces have become increasingly germ-conscious, requesting employees stay vigilant, get tested when symptoms arise and stay home when sick during the common flu and cold seasons. This heightened awareness of viral spread has increased the need for OccMed services both in clinics and on-site.
- Streamline Workflows
The pandemic highlighted how crucial it is for the healthcare system to optimize operations for flow and efficiency. Now, as Covid cases are back on the rise due to emerging variants, coupled with the return of more traditional urgent care visits, urgent care are prioritizing streamlining their clinic workflows to provide overall better care and patient experiences while meeting continuous regulatory changes. Proven methods for streamlining workflows include:
– Establish a practice of regular workflow audits – Clinic leaders can’t improve what they don’t understand. By tracking what is happening “now,” urgent care executives arm themselves with data-driven evidence to accurately apply observation-based, beneficial changes to the workflow.
– Examine personnel roles – Identify redundancies and over-burdened staff. Combining or separating roles, creating up-to-date job descriptions and conducting regular personnel assessments are all ways to make sure the right people are in the right place and work is getting done effectively.
– Consider schedule updates – Re-examine the clinic’s service hours and test adding or removing hours to see how profits change. Clinics can consider adding a floating personnel schedule, so if volume increases, the clinic has back-up staff available.
– Eliminate excess steps – This requires a high level of discernment. Even in a refined workflow, there’s always an opportunity to optimize. Look at whether online check-ins cut the front desk paperwork. Can patients pay online to reduce patient phone calls? It’s crucial to take advantage of the many automated shortcuts available.
– Make necessary steps smoother – Can hand-offs between providers and nurses be more collaborative and supportive or is documentation completed more quickly? Are lab results, images and other details automatically added to charts? When it comes to these fundamental elements of care, corners can’t be cut, but improvements are always possible.
- Invest in Marketing
Data has shown that 48% of patients that visited urgent care in 2020 are first-time visitors. The number of new patients that walked through the doors of urgent care in 2020 represents a unique opportunity to cultivate ongoing relationships with these patients and earn repeat visits, which if done right, can be supported through enhanced marketing initiatives. With these new patients in the database, clinics can optimize their marketing efforts on several fronts. First, urgent care should continue leveraging traditional marketing approaches, including in-office plugs for follow-up or additional care at the clinic, encouraging patients to follow urgent care social media accounts, direct mailers, and having a presence at community events. Getting involved in the local community, including the chamber of commerce, local schools and universities, and recreation centers and athletic organizations, and so much more, can help extend the clinic’s network of potential customer contacts. Additionally, clinics should embrace digital marketing strategies that support increased traffic to the urgent care’s website, elevate search results rankings, and bolster third-party validation via increased patient reviews. Finally, clinics need to be easy to find, both digitally and physically, through optimized Google My Business accounts, user-friendly websites, and clear signage and billboards.
The Covid-19 pandemic introduced many changes to the urgent care industry in 2020 that have redefined the public’s perception of, and reliance on, the accessible care option long-term. Urgent care clinics are, by definition, versatile and resilient, and the most successful clinics will continue leaning into those values to provide on-demand, patient-centric and accessible care. By embracing their mandate of convenient care, providing primary care and Occupational Medicine services, streamlining workflows and tailoring marketing to a newly-introduced patient pool, the urgent care industry is in a position to expand its role in the healthcare system while further cementing its proven value as a key pillar in the country’s care continuum.
About David Stern
David Stern is the CEO of Experity, the national leader in urgent care solutions. As a medical doctor, David learned firsthand that providing a remarkable patient experience is the key for healthcare clinics to stay relevant and be profitable. With this insight, he set out to develop urgent care-specific solutions that put patients first. With Experity, he remains focused on patients, helping to shape the urgent care industry, and developing solutions that ensure the success of clinics coast to coast.