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As the number of urgent care centers grows, and operators continue to position the facilities as affordable alternatives to emergency rooms, some clinicians are offering 24-hour access to urgent medical care. The hours ensure service is available to patients with an urgent, non-emergency medical need any time of day.

Dr. Jerry Williams offers 24-hour access at one of his five current Urgent Care 24/7 centers in the Savannah, Georgia-area. (He’s also preparing to open two additional locations.)

Williams said offering round-the-clock access to patients lends more credibility to his clinics. It’s one of the best decisions he’s made in the business, even though Williams said the extended hours cost money, people and other resources.

“People look at our company and take our company seriously,” he said. “It’s a big commitment of time, money, supplies, people, and equipment. But to do it well and to do it right, that’s what it takes.”

“Sure, there are hours when we don’t make money. But we gain in reputation, (having it known) in our medical community that we’re there when nobody else is.”

ER visits increased by 20 percent in the first decade of the new millennium, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in five Americans will visit the ER at least once annually, translating to about 136 million visits per year. Of those trips, only 12 percent result in admission, while as many as 65 percent are deemed unnecessary. ER visits are about four times as expensive and time-consuming as other ambulatory visits. Billions of dollars in health care costs, along with 65 percent waste and endless hours of work and school time lost occur as a result, U.S. News & World Report recently documented.

Most patients are using the ER because of the hours of access. For children, about 75 percent of their visits occur on nights and weekends, when the primary care physician is not open. Most of these visits are related to respiratory illnesses. Most adults show up for injuries, certainly unplanned and not likely to fit into a scheduled appointment.

Around 6,400 urgent care centers are operating across the country, according to a database maintained by the Urgent Care Association of America. Data on the number of 24-hour urgent care facilities is not tracked by the UCAOA.

Most 24-hour urgent care centers are found in high population density areas, such as Los Angeles or New York, where they also provide occupational medicine services to employers operating three shifts. The idea has spread in recent years to other areas, including Georgia and Texas.

Such centers are attractive options for consumers who don’t have primary care physicians or face a long wait before getting in to see their regular providers. Urgent care clinics usually have extended operating hours on nights and weekends, which appeals to people unable to take time off from work. The prices are more affordable than those charged by hospital emergency rooms or free-standing emergency centers.

Since the growth of urgent care is a consumer-driven phenomenon, it makes sense that many of the centers are locating in retail settings and establishing extended hours.

Three of Texas MedClinic’s urgent care centers are open 24 hours. Dr. Bernard T. Swift, Jr., owner of Texas MedClinic, touts the access to physicians for treatment of non-emergent conditions and injuries. There is an $81 after-hours fee assessed for patients visiting between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m., which Swift points out is much lower than the $200 or more charged in freestanding emergency departments.

“Don’t waste time and money at a freestanding emergency room or emergency room just because it’s very late or very early. Texas MedClinic is here to provide you quality, affordable care, day and night,” is the advice offered on the center’s website.

In Michigan, Dr. Terry Matthews just this week launched 24-hour service at one of Lansing Urgent Care’s five clinics. He’s looking forward to better-serving the community and helping divert patients who may otherwise land in an emergency room.

Back in Savannah, Williams pointed to one of his competitors who markets extended hours. But even though the competitor keeps his clinic open until 8 p.m., patients can’t check in after 7:30, Williams said.

“Patients come to us and say, ‘They were open and they wouldn’t take care of us because we got there at 7:45 p.m.,’” Williams said. “They come over to our location and say, ‘You’ve got a patient for life.”

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