The COVID-19 pandemic accelerates patient use of on-demand care

Patient experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have dramatically accelerated changes in expectations. During the pandemic, record numbers of patients experienced a host of new impacts on care delivery, including telemedicine as an alternative to in-person visits, more robust online scheduling options, and unprecedented delays in primary care visits and preventive medical care, adding to record utilization of urgent care for on-demand healthcare.

Once personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing was available, urgent care centers pivoted from providing basic on-demand care for minor illnesses and injuries to focusing on COVID-19 triage, testing and treatment for millions of Americans. At the pandemic peak while many primary care physicians provided limited access for COVID-19 care, almost 30% of COVID-19 tests were performed by urgent care centers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a seismic shift in ongoing patient expectations, as record numbers of new patients utilized urgent care in 2020. Many more patients now recognize that urgent cares offer convenient, on-demand services without sacrificing quality. This dramatic change in patient expectations for on-demand healthcare will likely result in more patients utilizing urgent care instead of clogging up emergency departments or waiting days, weeks, or months for primary care. 

A study published by Annals of Internal Medicine showed that commercially insured adults - especially young adults, those without chronic conditions, and those living in low-income areas - have reduced visits to primary care providers (PCPs) due to financial deterrents and use of alternative sources of care. Their pandemic experiences have surely demonstrated to many healthcare under-utilizers that many of their concerns may be conveniently addressed at urgent cares, which are often more accessible, convenient, and cost-effective.

As Americans are increasingly embracing on-demand care models, urgent care centers are seeing increased demand for offering primary care services to serve their growing clientele. To meet this demand, urgent cares are once again are evolving to better support their patients’ changing needs by pivoting their on-demand models, strategies, and technologies. 

Leveraging Technology to Address New Workflows and Challenges

For urgent care clinics, evolving into more expansive care providers requires a certain caliber of software and support. Switching back and forth between urgent care and primary care workflows presents a challenge to staff, and efficient software is critical to ease this transition. Thus, a single operating system that allows staff to address both types of workflows side by side eliminates extra steps and speeds up processes. One of the challenges in delivering proper primary care is ensuring staff have access to all the patient information they need. Without integrated solutions designed to accommodate both episodic visits and acute, longitudinal visits, staff may not have sufficient insight into a client’s medical history to effectively treat them. These challenges can be alleviated with the right set of operating system solutions that allow staff to easily review active problem summaries and document chronic problems without leaving a patient’s chart, view past labs, and track and graph growth charts.

Urgent cares rose to the challenge of meeting patients’ new needs and accommodating increased visit volumes during the pandemic by implementing innovative solutions and optimizing their patient workflows. Telemedicine, for example, is now cemented within the backbone of our healthcare infrastructure, and its pandemic-fueled explosion has yielded countless new possibilities and specific features that have been incorporated into urgent care workflows.

In addition to telemedicine tools, many urgent cares added patient online-queuing, self-registration, online test resulting and automated patient surveys post visit. Queues and self-registration allowed patients to schedule visits and input their demographics and insurance information before ever stepping into a clinic, minimizing wait times and exposure to other ill patients. These clinics regularly scored over 80% NPS* ratings, and these millions of satisfied patients provide a great opportunity for urgent care clinics to expand their offerings into primary care services and turn new visitors into repeat patients. These tools have amplified urgent cares’ overall capabilities and made urgent care the go-to source for on-demand healthcare.

Additionally, patient engagement software solutions have become central to the success of today’s ambulatory healthcare provider, and urgent cares have deep experience utilizing engagement software to meet patient expectations.

Finally, as urgent care centers make this pivot, they may need to consider contracting as a primary care provider and understand how it will affect their revenue cycles and reimbursement. While urgent cares deal with more acute problems, supporting primary care means caring for a larger variety of patients – some with more complex conditions. Every clinic is different, and it may be possible to operate all urgent care services under a primary care contract, but it’s crucial to receive expert advice before making any changes.

Meeting Patients’ Needs by Optimizing the Patient Experience

Now more than ever, healthcare is consumer-driven, with patients demanding how, when and where they receive medical care. This is where urgent cares have been able to excel, leveraging available tools and adding supplementary services, including primary care. 

The future of urgent care is bright for both patients and clinics as options for care continue to evolve and expand. With the right tools and systems in place, urgent cares can efficiently and properly adjust and add primary care services to create optimal patient experiences. 

David Stern is the chief executive officer of Experity.