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Important differences exist between urgent care centers

Benita Zahn
Created: February 26, 2020 06:42 PM

They're convenient, cheaper than being treated at an emergency room, and they're increasing. Urgent care centers are proliferating across country and here in the Capital Region.

The Urgent Care Association says the total number of urgent care centers in the United States reached 8,774 in 2018. That's up eight percent from the year before.

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The numbers for 2019 aren't in yet.

However, who's watching over these facilities? How do you know what kind of care will be provided?

The allure of urgent care centers is providing health care when your doctor's office is closed, or if you can't get an immediate appointment or you don't have a primary care physician.

However, keep in mind that there is no minimum requirement in New York state these facilities must meet, because urgent care is not a legally defined license category.

In fact, they don't have to provide care to you. Think of them as a doctor's office with extended hours and potentially more services.

“Enhanced doctor's offices. I think a lot of the primary care offices you certainly won't find x-ray, you won't find the ability to do laceration repair, splinting necessarily. So it's certainly a higher level of care, but in essence, it falls under the same guidelines as a doctor's office,” explained Dr. Stephen Hassett, the Division Chief of Urgent Care and Community Outreach at Albany Medical Center.

Like a doctor's office, it's a business.

“They look at things like traffic counts and who are the other business that are in the area. We have market studies that are done for us,” noted Andrea Knowles-Skowvron, Senior Director of Practice Operations with WellNow, an urgent care company affiliated with St. Peter's Health Partners.

People think that if you come to an urgent care that's affiliated with a hospital that it's being governed by the hospital rules. That is false, because it's a private business - owned by a physician or physician's group.

However, there is one category that does fall under Health Department rules.

“If a hospital owns the setting, then the hospital is required to go through the licensing process,” explained Keith Servis, with the New York State Department of Health.

That's the case at the Ellis Hospital urgent care facility in Clifton Park and the urgent care facility in Malta owned by Albany Med.

“The hospital may want to provide more diagnostic services in a particular location and it may just be for the additional convenience of patients,” said Servis.

So you need to ask questions before walking through the door of an urgent care center:

·         Is it doctor owned and operated or is it owned by a hospital?

·         Is there a doctor present?

·         What kind of diagnostic services are available?

·         Will they treat more than a sore throat and runny nose?

·         Do they take your insurance?

·         If you're uninsured, will they work out a fee schedule?

·         You can also ask if they're accredited by the Urgent Care Association - basically a trade organization that has no regulatory teeth, but can provide guidance and encourages adherence to standard of care.

·         Ask about the doctor's board certification and specialty.

·         Keep in mind, these facilities do not provide continuing care for an ongoing health condition you have.

·         Remember, urgent care does not treat a condition that's life-threatening.

“So if you're having chest pain with nausea, vomiting, you think you're having a heart attack call EMS,” said Hassett.  “If you're having stroke symptoms, the same idea."

The same holds if you suffer a life-threatening injury.

If you think the treatment you've gotten at an urgent care center is sub-par, you can file a complaint with the Office of Professional Misconduct, just as you would with a private doctor's office.

Because of NewsChannel 13's inquiry about urgent care centers, the state Health Department plans to update and expand its website on this topic.

MORE INFORMATION: New York Attorney General's Office info on urgent care centers


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