The results of a recent national survey highlight just how vital it is for urgent care providers to build positive relationships with primary care physicians.

Harris Poll conducted an online survey on behalf of Mercy Health System of Southeastern Pennsylvania of more than 1,700 U.S. adults who have primary care physicians. The results show that 66 percent of respondents would seek health care from sources other than primary care physicians – such as urgent care centers – due to scheduling issues. The top scheduling issues patients cited in the survey were:

  • Inability to schedule a non-urgent appointment within the same week (43 percent)
  • Inability to schedule an appointment outside of normal business hours (42 percent)
  • Inability to schedule a check-up appointment within the same month (39 percent)
  • Inability to get through on the phone to make an appointment (39 percent)

The survey also showed that patients aren’t following up with their primary care physicians after visiting an urgent care center because they assume their visit information is being sent to their primary care physician. Fewer than half of the respondents followed up with their primary care physicians after visiting an urgent care center (36 percent) or retail health clinic (25 percent) despite “follow up with your PCP” being standard among discharge instructions. But 65 percent of respondents assumed their primary care physicians would receive updates on their urgent care visits even though that doesn’t always happen.

Many of these issues can be solved through relationship-building between urgent care centers and primary care practices, but many primary care physicians are resistant to working with urgent care centers because they believe urgent care centers are trying to steal their patients. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

How Urgent Care Supplements Primary Care

When urgent care and primary care work together, the patient wins. Urgent care centers typically augment a community’s access to health care, providing walk-in hours on evenings, weekends and (most) holidays when most other facilities are closed. The most common ways an urgent care center can supplement a primary care practice’s health care services are by:

  • Accepting overflow volume when the practice is at capacity
  • Providing walk-in coverage when the primary care practice is closed
  • Providing services not typically offered at the primary care practice, such as x-rays, lab testing and medical procedures such as suturing and casting
  • Providing services that involve detailed protocols or complex payors, such as workers’ comp or employer paid services
  • Referring patients with chronic illnesses to the primary care practice

With the right relationships in place, primary care practices, pediatrician offices and other referral providers can drive patient traffic to urgent care centers during scheduled closures, such as holidays, nights and weekends. They can display urgent care centers’ maps, flyers and other marketing materials at their front desks, in their waiting rooms, on their front doors, on their social media channels or on their websites, and they can also leave a message on their practices’ answering machines and send email blasts notifying patients to use urgent care centers should the need arise.

How to Build Relationships with Primary Care Providers

The best way to build any relationship is face-to-face. Breakfast meetings typically work best because they can be scheduled before either office opens, and they involve little time commitment. However, this must be between peers, so don’t send your urgent care center manager or sales person to make the initial contact with the primary care physician you’d like to work with. Stop into the practice, make initial contact and set up a meeting.

When selecting who to work with, it is vital that your insurance panel aligns with whatever insurance the primary care physician’s patient have, especially if the primary care physician has risk-based primary care managed health populations in gatekeeper HMOs, such as Medicare Advantage. When you meet, describe your urgent care center’s scope of services, emphasizing that urgent care is episodic so the primary care physician understands you are not trying to steal patients but are trying to augment the physician’s current practice and save his/her patients from unnecessary emergency department visits. If the physician seems open to working with you, work on a process for communicating patient progress, scheduling re-checks and rescheduling prospective new patients at the primary care office. Make sure to schedule regular follow-up meetings to assess your relationship with the PCP, including a review of referral activities, how you might improve referral processes and communications, and replenish marketing materials at each other’s facilities.

Like any relationship, it takes time to build trust and processes, so it’s not going to happen overnight. However, it’s worth the effort – for you and your patients.

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