Last week, I twisted my ankle playing in the backyard with my dogs. My dogs have me well trained; I throw the ball, they chase it, then they run away, making me then chase them to retrieve the ball.
On one such circuit, my foot hit one of the holes one of my dogs had dug (I love my dogs!), and my ankle rolled in a manner that a 50+-year-old man's ankle should not move. After a quick check to ensure that none of my neighbors saw what happened, I picked myself up and limped into the house. After taking two ibuprofen and icing my ankle, the swelling did not go down, and my ankle was turning a lovely shade of purple. My next action was to ask my wife to take me to the local urgent care facility. At no point did I think to go to my local hospital's emergency room. It wasn't until after I returned home with doctor's orders to rest, take ibuprofen, and ice the offending joint, did I realize something interesting. That should this have happened six years ago; I would have gone to the hospital instead of an urgent care facility.
(BTW, the story of above is entirely, 100%, fictitious. I, as a grown man, would never allow himself to be trained by three lovable rescue dogs!)
However, I, like most Americans, have come to rely on urgent care facilities for non-life threatening injuries and illnesses. The rapidly growing marketplace of urgent care facilities has crept into our daily lives. The healthcare market has seen a growing demand for urgent care facilities due in large part to consumers demanding more choices, faster access to a healthcare provider, and a better patient experience.
Being able to run to a local pharmacy, without an appointment, for a sore throat is not only faster but more convenient. The nurse practitioner can prescribe the appropriate medications and send it to the pharmacist in seconds. Most times, by the time I leave the exam room, my prescription is ready. Or, visiting an urgent care facility for a twisted ankle (that stupid fictitious hole in my backyard!) and be x-rayed, examined and on my way home in less than an hour is a much better experience than an emergency room. (Let me unequivocally state the obvious - emergency rooms triage patients based on the severity of the illness or injury. They rightfully place patients that are severely wounded or very sick ahead of grown men who trip while playing with their dogs.)
What does goes into making the experience better for the patient?
Urgent care centers are a modern invention, having, for the most part, started within the last decade. The 21st Century patient was the model for the workflow. This consumer not only wants their goods and services now, but they also want high-quality products and services. This patient wants to seen quickly, examed thoroughly and be on their way with a solution to their illness or injury in a relatively short period of time. And if they don't get what they want? They are more than happy to visit the urgent care center across the street. With few brands excepted (Apple and Nike come to mind), the 21 Century consumer is not a brand loyal creature.
One of the differentiators is the equipment in the facilities. Unfortunately, some hospital systems saw the new business model of urgent care facilities as an excuse to transfer their old equipment and purchase new equipment for the hospital. While these new facilities were beautiful to look at and great for a sore throat, they failed the expectations of this 21st Century consumer. Having old or outdated x-ray equipment break down or not provide good diagnostic images caused many of this type of facility to fail. Centers that invested in new equipment with state of the art technologies offered a better patient experience.
Today's radiology companies offer x-ray solutions designed for use in urgent care facilities. Floor mounted digital radiology systems, mobile x-ray units, and u-arms provide high-resolution digital images while occupying a small footprint. While these systems are small in size, they do not compromise quality. Many offer the same diagnostic image quality of full-size machines found in hospitals and imaging centers. For my fictitious ankle, an x-ray on a new DR portable was good enough for my physician to determine my ankle wasn't broken.
So the next time you twist your ankle playing catch with the dog, remember to visit an urgent care facility. But should you have your ankle snapped in two by a timber wolf, you probably should skip the urgent care facility and head to the emergency room.
***That's my dog Odie, he is a six-year-old, 80lb rescue pup that loves to play catch.