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Is 2015 the year you decide to open an urgent care practice? If you are interested in urgent care medicine, you are not alone. Growth is expected to continue as patients seek immediate access to medical care and lower-cost alternatives to emergency department visits. Despite the rewards, urgent care medicine comes with risks-especially for physicians unprepared for the business demands of operating an urgent care center.
According to the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine (AACUM), the number of urgent care facilities has increased 14% to 9,300 centers since 2008.
The economics support this trend. The Urgent Care Association of America (UCAA, 2013 benchmark survey) showed that 83% of urgent care centers experienced growth, and approximately 88% of practices expanded an existing location or added a new location in 2014.
Any exploration of starting an urgent care center should begin with these considerations:
Although most urgent care providers have trained in internal, family or emergency medicine, consider offering some form of specialized care at your urgent care clinic.
Consultants at DoctorsManagement are seeing the emergence of walk-in orthopedic/sports medicine clinics or even after-hours pediatric urgent care clinics. These facilities can triage and attend to injuries and illnesses without the need to schedule appointments with physician offices hours or days in advance.
Other urgent care clinics offer cash-based services and market medical weight loss, substance abuse treatment, or aesthetic services to complement their walk-in primary care.
Determine what lines of service your urgent care will provide, then equip and select experienced staff to deliver that care.
Just be careful not to extend beyond the scope of your own practice experience or professional capacity.
Location has always been a factor for physicians opening a practice, but going where patients live and work is particularly relevant when selecting a site for an urgent care center.
Make sure to analyze demographics and market conditions in the community where you plan to open your urgent care. Select a location near your ideal target patient population, then design your clinic to best serve them.
For example, an industrial or corporate park may be an ideal location for those specializing in occupational medicine, while proximity to a community sports complex or schools is a natural fit for those focusing on sports- related injuries, physicals and vaccinations.
Commercial town centers, where consumers shop or do errands, are optimal, high-visibility locations for an urgent care center, but bear in mind that you may find competition from other urgent care providers.
The UCAA estimates that you may find an average of four urgent care centers for the average target market population of 114,000.
While it may be tempting to select a large space in an ideal location, choosing a space that exceeds your clinic’s space requirements will result in start-up cost overruns, underutilized exam rooms and lost profits.
A good rule of thumb: Health Space Design advises its clients to plan for 1,500 square feet per physician, which allows for three exam rooms per provider.
Allocate an additional 1,000 square feet for a reception/waiting area, a lab, and radiology room. Look for designs that reduce clutter, maximize patient flow and minimize the distance staff and physicians must travel between exam rooms.
Remember: an urgent care center is as much a retail space as a medical space.
Patient comfort, peace of mind and convenience are top priorities, so opt for an environment that is more warm, welcoming and less clinical.
Include amenities for enhancing the patient experience such as flat-screen TVs, coffee stations, free Wi-Fi, accessible electrical outlets and even fish tanks. Signage and the use of large windows will help attract street traffic to your clinic.
When hiring a designer, make sure their experience includes an understanding of clinical processes and regulations governing a medical space. Consider referrals from peers or contact trade associations such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the International Interior Design Association (IIDA.)
In today’s retail medicine environment, gaining mind and market share are critical. Patients have choices on whether to use you, another urgent care center or to visit a hospital emergency department.
Your location, your design, your logo and your website are all part of the branding experience that is so crucial in a competitive marketplace. Your brand is a shorthand of your benefits and perceived value allowing customers to assess the quality of care even before they walk through the door.
Urgent care centers rely on walk-ins without appointments or physician referrals, so your brand is particularly important in turning first impressions into return trips and patient referrals.
Having a consistent look and feel in the market is also valuable for physicians who are considering opening multiple locations. It can save design and material costs and can even attract investors or franchisees looking for businesses that are scalable and well-known in the marketplace.
Don’t equate your skill as a doctor with your skill as a business person
You may have mastered clinical medicine, but it’s likely that you have little training in the business of medicine. From insurance contracting, accounting, payroll, hiring and firing employees to coding and marketing, your focus should be on delivering superior care to your patients, not on addressing these challenges each day.
Choose an experienced manager or management consultant to help you make the daily business decisions that will maintain the smooth operation, compliance and profitability of your urgent care clinic.
Of course these are only a few of the many considerations you need to make when launching an urgent care center. Urgent care centers are an appealing alternative or complement to a traditional medical practice, but understand the rules of engagement before taking the plunge.
The authors of this piece areValora Gurganious, MBA, a senior practice management consultant with DoctorsManagement, LLC, and Dan Greenfield, co-founder of Health Space Design. Send your practice management questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.