Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Urgent cares for routine illnesses ... yes or no?

photo source: Shutterstock
Every day I review reports from urgent cares that my patients visit outside our office. I know many parents go because they are worried about their sick child and want them to be seen immediately.

Some may not realize that our office has extended walk in hours ~ we are often open when they go to these urgent cares.

Or they might simply find it more convenient to go to the corner clinic near their house.

Other parents do not want to miss work (or let their kids miss school) so they go after hours to an urgent care clinic (despite our extended hours).

Sometimes there is a financial incentive for the family with a lesser copay at a walk in clinic because of the insurance contract with that company. (Don't get me started on the reasons that makes my blood boil...)

Urgent cares and emergency rooms are designed to quickly evaluate and treat patients with significant illnesses and injuries. They do not have the luxury of follow up, so they tend to err on caution and do more labs, x-rays, and prescriptions than primary care offices. This not only exposes kids to more medications, excess lab draws and x-ray radiation, but it costs parents more money. (Even if your plan doesn't require you to pay for that specific test, you pay for it through your premiums.) Although urgent cares cost less than emergency rooms, many are finding that costs are still well above those at a primary care office.

Most often visits are for things that could have been taken care of in the primary care office without all the added tests and treatments. A common visit to an urgent care is for ear pain. Often when kids are diagnosed with an ear infection, they leave the urgent care with a prescription for an antibiotic despite the fact that the large majority of these infections are caused by a virus and antibiotics are not effective against viruses. I suspect that part of the reason patients leave with a prescription and fill it right away is the urgent care wants to get patients in and out quickly. There's an ear infection and it's easier to just write a prescription for an antibiotic than it is to explain why it is okay to treat symptoms at home without a prescription for a few days first. They also don't have access to the past medical history and vaccine records, which can impact treatment choices, so they must be more cautious and treat.

And parents are happy. They "got something" for their visit.

Another common ER or urgent care visit is for fever or cough. At these visits they often get a chest x-ray and labs.

And parents are happy because "something was done" at the visit.

At the primary care office labs or x-rays might be done on occasion, but it is less typical. A good history of illness and physical exam usually can identify the most likely diagnosis. Instructions on how to manage the illness and when to follow up can be discussed.

And yes, this does cause less patient satisfaction sometimes because they didn't "get something" for their visit. What they got was an assessment, a diagnosis, a treatment plan of things to do at home to treat symptoms, and instructions on how to monitor for worsening of symptoms. Nothing tangible, but very worthwhile!

Unfortunately, many parents see excess testing and treatment as good care and don't realize that it is the inexperience of the provider who is over treating. An experienced pediatric-trained primary care provider would not need all this testing to be comfortable making a diagnosis and watching the patient over time without prescription treatments.

Even a provider with years of experience in an urgent care setting does not have the experience of watching a patient over time without interventions. They never get to see patients get better on their own. They never get that opportunity to learn from their patients. They learn in training to evaluate and treat, then send patients out the door (or in for admission). That's what they do.

A big issue I alluded to above is patient satisfaction. Urgent care and emergency room physicians and midlevel providers are often under pressure to make patients happy, which includes doing tests and giving prescriptions ~ after all, that's what the patient paid for, right? {sarcasm} 
My concern is that higher patient satisfaction scores are NOT associated with better care. Conversely, they have been associated with higher healthcare costs, increased prescription drug costs, and even higher mortality. (The Cost of SatisfactionA National Study of Patient Satisfaction, Health Care Utilization, Expenditures, and Mortality)
 Even my patients who have seen me for years might be uncomfortable the first time they leave with a diagnosis of ear infection and are told to NOT use an antibiotic right away. I don't get blood work just because a child started with a fever today. My patient families know me. We've developed a trusted relationship, so they listen to my advice. They learn that it is okay to not do labs or start antibiotics because I take the time to explain what is going on, what is to be expected as things progress, and what to look for if the child's condition worsens. They know how to contact me or the on call provider if needed.


I know that Americans enjoy the convenience of walk in centers at every drugstore. I understand that there are situations when kids are so sick they need to be seen after hours. But I also encourage parents to consider if waiting until regular business hours is appropriate for whatever is causing their child to be sick. Never wait if it is a real emergency. But if your child can be managed safely at home with pain relievers, saline, humidifying the air, massage, rocking, or whatever fits the symptoms, please use your child's medical home when they open. There your child will be well cared for, records will be complete at the primary care office, and there will be less over testing and treatment.

I have blogged before about the benefits of going to your medical home  and when to see your PCP. I continue to stand behind the idea of patients going to their medical home for most visits because I feel you get better care and more personalized service, even if you see a different provider within the office. We have the ability to update your child's records, see past treatments, know your child's immunization status and have record of any allergies. We have the luxury of having you follow up so we know if things resolve or if further evaluation and treatment is needed. We don't need to order every test and treatment on the first visit, because most of the time they aren't needed. We might ask that you bring your child back in a short time to re-examine and see how the symptoms change. (For more on the value of repeated exams, see Evolution of Illness.) We will walk you through your child's illness if you come to us!

March 2014 Update: For an interesting read on how some doctors must overprescribe to get high rankings, see Patient Satisfaction is Overrated.