Downsides of outside urgent cares

Do the downsides of using an outside urgent care outweigh the benefits? Is it worth it to wait for your usual doctor’s office?

I started writing a simple blog about using urgent cares appropriately to get the best care, but I quickly realized that it’s a bigger topic than it first seems. I’ve covered the visit experience itself and the benefits of using your medical home. Now it’s time to talk about the downsides of using an urgent care outside your medical home. Do the downsides of using an outside urgent care outweigh the benefits? Is it worth it to wait for your usual doctor’s office?

Who will you see?

There are many types of independent urgent cares. My community has some that are associated with hospital systems or pharmacies and some that are independent. They are staffed with many different types of providers. Some are even pediatric focused, but others are staffed with people who have little training or experience seeing kids. That means you need to know who you’re seeing and what their background is.

Limited pediatric experience

The provider at the clinic may or may not have adequate training in pediatrics. They often do not have others around who can help if a problem arises that is out of their comfort zone or level of experience and training.

This can lead to over treatment,  under recognition of a serious condition, and over testing with unnecessary labs or x-rays.

Training matters

Simply put, make sure your provider has extensive training in pediatrics.

This is not a “we’re better than you” point.

I do not think that every physician is a good clinician by default. Neither do I think nurse practitioners or physician assistants are not good at what they do. Both physicians as well as NPs and PAs can be great or not so great. We all have our strengths and weaknesses which are built on our interests, training, and experience.

I am getting the following numbers from What Kind of Doctor is Your Doctor? The link includes a nice chart of even more doctor types.

Pediatricians spend at least 3 years during residency learning how to take care of kids. This involves about 2400 hours per year for 3 years taking care of sick kids after medical school. Medical school is about 6000 hours of training. Total clinical training (excluding college years) is a minimum of 13,600 hours. Pediatricians know kids.

Family physicians also spend 3 years in residency after medical school, but that time is not focused on child health. The amount of training caring for children varies based on the program and their experiences.

Physician Assistants spend 2-3 years in a master’s program, with an estimated training time of 2000 hours total. This is not focused on child health at most programs. Much like family physicians, their time is divided between adults and children.

Nurse practitioners spend 1-2 years in a master’s or doctorate program. Clinical training requirements vary from 500-1000 hours. Again, these hours include both adult and pediatric patients. Traditionally most nurse practitioners went into graduate school after many years of nursing experience. That is becoming less common as many are going straight from nursing school into graduate programs, so they do not always have those working years of experience prior to getting their advanced degree.

Years of experience

Of course with all of the training hours, there is also experience after training. You are correct if you say that every person with experience is not better than someone without experience, but in general experience helps.

If a person spends 40+ hours a week for many years taking care of kids, they  continue to learn along the way. Sometimes they pick up bad habits, but I can only hope that with experience comes competence. This is best done when people work in a setting that has more experienced colleagues to offer advice along the way, not when they’re thrown into a clinic alone from day one and made to figure it out on their own.

Remember all those clinical hours medical residents spend learning? They are essentially working under those who are more experienced for several years, learning to manage complex (and minor) issues along the way. So even a brand new physician has more experience than some other providers with several years of work experience that may or may not have been supervised.

The risk of getting what you want vs what you need

Most people use walk in clinics for convenience. When their child is sick or injured, they want help ASAP. That’s understandable.

I’ve written before about why convenience isn’t always best and why sometimes it’s okay to wait. Here’s a very common example of not getting what you need:

If a baby is crying, the eardrum gets red, but isn’t necessarily infected.

Misdiagnosis

A provider without a lot of experience will often err on calling it an ear infection simply because it’s red. That makes parents happy because they think they’re doing something to make their child better.

They’re not if it’s not a bacterial infection. There’s risk to taking unnecessary medicine.

Quick medicine

It’s fastest to write a prescription and move on to the next patient rather than to explain what to do to treat a viral infection.

This is not good care, but it’s common.

Treatments don’t always need a prescription

Don’t feel like you leave empty-handed if you leave the clinic with the information that your child doesn’t need labs or prescription medicine.

Leave with the knowledge of what to do if symptoms change.

Learn how you can help ease symptoms and make them feel better.

You’re not empty-handed – you’re empowered with knowledge!

And then there’s the required surveys…

You have probably been asked to do a survey after shopping. Sometimes you do it for store credit or to help a nice sales person meet their quota.

Sadly, surveys have made their way into healthcare. We can’t offer a discount for your next visit, but many of us are required to collect a certain number of surveys each quarter.

Medical staff are being graded by patients to be sure they’re giving “quality care” ~ and I put that in quotes because I don’t believe that it measures quality at all. I discuss this in more detail in Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold!

Giving a prescription for an antibiotic makes parents happy, regardless if it is necessary. They feel like their trip was worth it because they “got something” to treat the symptoms. This means better satisfaction scores for the clinic because people like to leave with a treatment. It also brings in more money because faster turn around means more patients can be seen. The shorter wait time also drives up satisfaction despite the fact that it’s not good care.

It takes longer to explain how to treat a cold than it does to write a quick script. Parents are generally happy with the visit, but antibiotics are overused and the recommended treatments aren’t adequately discussed. And that’s not okay.

No follow-up

Independent urgent cares do not offer follow-up of issues to see if there is improvement.

Not following up not only prevents assurance that the patient gets appropriate follow-up, but it also keeps the provider from learning how diseases and conditions progress over time. This is one reason why some people with years of experience still tend to over treat or under recognize things.

Phone help

Stand alone urgent cares do not take phone calls to answer medical questions. They don’t even answer follow-up questions about your visit by phone.

If you have questions, you must call your PCP or return to the urgent care. If we haven’t seen the child for the issue, we are unable to give appropriate advice.

Prescription “refills”

I’ve been asked on many occasions to refill a medication from an urgent care because it was spilled or forgotten on a trip.

I can’t refill a prescription I didn’t write.

The parent can’t call the urgent care provider for a refill because they don’t accept calls.

That’s quite a predicament!

Referrals

If you require a referral to see a specialist for any reason, it is usually required for your PCP to do that paperwork. There are insurance plans that do not require referrals, and you may schedule on your own unless the specialist requires a referral.

If we haven’t seen your child for the issue at hand, especially if we have no documentation at all about the referral, we often cannot do it without seeing your child.

Why do we need to see your child first?

It is one of the requirements that we must abide by in some of our insurance contracts. Seeing the physician who knows a patient best can help to avoid unnecessary appointments with specialists.

Required documentation

Sometimes it’s as simple as we can’t refer for something we don’t know about. Many referrals require a copy of an office visit.

If we didn’t see your child for a visit, we have no visit supporting the need for the referral. We need documentation to send for the referral.

Sometimes a specialist is not needed

I have seen many situations where an urgent care physician, NP, or PA recommends follow-up with a specialist of some sort that isn’t needed. They often don’t realize that it is quite within the scope of practice of a primary care provider. They cannot know the skill set of every PCP in town. Call your PCP to see if they can handle the issue. It can save you money in lesser copays if you see your PCP first.

An example of this is a concussion. Every provider in my office is competent following most concussions and clearing for play when indicated. Other examples are rashes (including acne), simple fractures and constipation. I’ve seen patients who waited a very long time and paid a lot of money to see specialists for each of these indications based solely on the urgent care recommendation. Most of the time I’m completely unaware of the whole issue until I see them next and they mention seeing the specialist.

They get the same treatment plan at the specialist as we could provide in my office, but at a much higher cost and decreased convenience.

Incorrect diagnosis

I’ve also seen a number of kids with issues diagnosed at urgent care centers that I disagree with the assessment or plan. This brings us back to all the issues listed above.

One common example of this is a toddler with “recurrent ear infections” who has only had ear infections when seen by an urgent care provider. Every time they see me with the same symptoms, their ears are okay. I often wonder if these kids ever had a real ear infection. Maybe they did and it is simply coincidence, but if they didn’t, they don’t need the risk of anesthesia for tubes. I’d like to have the conversation face to face with the parent after I examine the ears myself.

Continuity of care

There are gaps in care even at urgent cares where there is a pediatrician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant with extensive pediatric training.

They do not know your child’s full medical background and do not update your child’s health record in the medical home.

Following in one office allows us to see the chronicity or recurrence risk of an issue. If your child goes multiple places for every sore throat, no one recognizes that a tonsillectomy might be beneficial.

Related posts

Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold!

Convenience Care

Help Us Help You! Make the most out of phone calls

Improper Use of Antibiotics: Don’t take the risk

Top 10 Tips for Going to an Urgent Care

Evolution of Illness

Top 10 Tips for Going to an Urgent Care

School’s back in session, which means sick season is approaching quickly! The pure volume of sick visits can be overwhelming for any clinic, whether visits are scheduled or walk in, but the nature of walk in clinics makes the volume unpredictable. Sometimes no one in walks in, other times several come at once. Urgent cares and walk in clinics are wonderful for the overall speed at which one can be seen, but how can you help streamline the process? How can you keep your primary care physician in the loop? Here are my top tips for a successful urgent care trip and knowing when to avoid them.

1.  Write down symptoms.

It sounds crazy to write down things since you know your child better than anyone, but if your child is sick you are probably sleep deprived and might forget important details.

Writing things down helps everyone summarize what is going on and get facts straight. The diagnosis often lies in the history, and if the person bringing the child in does not know symptoms well, it’s difficult to make a proper diagnosis.

This also forces you to think about the symptoms, and you might realize that you don’t know everything that’s going on. This is especially true if your child spends time away from you at school, daycare, or with another parent. It’s better to recognize that you need more of the story before you get to the clinic!

2.  Expect to be seen for one acute problem.

Illnesses typically have more than one symptom despite being a single illness. It’s appropriate to bring a child in for multiple symptoms, such as cough, fever, and sore throat.

It is not appropriate to bring them in for those issues as well as a wart and headache of 3 months off and on. If there are unrelated things, expect to deal with the most acute issue and then follow up with your usual physician to discuss the more chronic things at a scheduled appointment.

The nature of walk in clinics is that they move rapidly. The number of patients checking in at any given time can be large, so each visit must be quick. If you need more time to address many issues or one big condition, schedule an appointment.

3.  Don’t attempt to get care for a chronic issue.

Chronic issues are always best managed by your Primary Care Provider (PCP), but exacerbations of chronic issues might need to be seen quickly.

This means that sudden changes to a condition, such as wheezing in an asthmatic, can be addressed at an urgent care, but routine asthma management should be done during a scheduled visit. Your child can go to the walk in for the wheezing, but should follow up with the PCP with a scheduled appointment to discuss any changes needed to the daily medication regimen (Action Plan) to prevent further wheezing.

This is especially important if you went to another urgent care or ER for initial treatment so that your doctor knows about the recent exacerbation of a chronic issue.

4.  Do not add additional children to the visit.

Many parents bring additional kids to the visit and ask if we can “just take a peek” in their ears.

If you want them to be seen, check them in too. Again, walk in clinics move quickly and the “quick” peek often takes longer than you’d think because the child is running around the room or fighting the exam.

The quick peek also does not allow for documentation of findings in the medical record, which might be helpful in the future.

5.  Have your insurance card and co-payment ready at check in.

Streamline checking in by having everything ready.

It’s surprising to me how many people must return to their car for their wallet. For safety reasons, never leave a purse or wallet in your car.

6.  Try to bring only the child who is being seen.

It is difficult to focus on one sick child when another is running around the room, falling off the exam table, or constantly asking questions. This applies to scheduled as well as walk in visits.

I know this becomes a childcare issue, but it can really help focus on the child being seen if you leave additional children at home if at all possible. Think of friends who always offer to have a play date with the healthy child. Or maybe plan to bring one child when the other is at school.

If you must bring multiple kids, set the stage right by avoiding bringing tired and hungry kids. Don’t come at nap time if at all possible. Tired kids are miserable kids. Give them a healthy snack before going to the clinic. Don’t feed your kids at the office – another child could have a food allergy to whatever you’re feeding them, which can put other kids at risk. Bring books or toys that your kids can be entertained with during the visit.

7. Bring medications your child has recently taken.

Often parents have tried treatments at home, but are not sure what was in the bottle.

Bring all medications to help us advise on correct dosage and use of the medications. This includes prescription medicines as well as over the counter supplements, medicines, and natural therapies.

8. Use your regular doctor’s office if available.

I know not all doctor’s offices have walk in hours and most are not open all night long, but most walk in type visits are not emergent and they can wait until the next business day.

Treating symptoms with home remedies is quite acceptable for most illnesses for a couple days. This might even be beneficial to see how the symptoms change over time. Some kids are brought in at the first sign of fever, and look normal on exam, only to develop cough and earache over the next few days. When the symptoms change, so might the exam and treatments!

This is a very important issue and I’ll write more on it next week. Stay tuned! ***Check out Why Wait to See Your Regular Doctor ****

9.  Please don’t use walk in clinics to have health forms filled out.

I know it is tempting to get a quick physical to get a sports form or work physical signed, but doing so breaks the concept of a medical home.

If you get these forms completed outside your PCP’s office, you don’t get a comprehensive visit. The visit with your PCP should include reviewing growth, development, safety, immunization status, and more. It’s more than just filling out forms. You lose the opportunity to share what has happened in the past year and continue to build a trusting relationship.

If the medical home does all the well visits and vaccines, we have up to date records and can update them as needed. Some kids have missed school because vaccines were missed and they can’t return until they get them. Others have gotten extra doses of vaccines because a record of a shot was missing and parents can’t remember where they got the vaccine.

We request a well visit yearly in the medical home after age 3, more often for infants.  If in need of a well visit, please call the office to schedule!

10. Call first if you’re not sure!

If you’re not sure if it’s okay to tough it out at home overnight, call your doctor’s office.

We can often give tips on how to manage symptoms to save the emergency room co pay and germ exposure. Sometimes we do advise going to be seen. If there are concerns about dehydration, difficulty breathing, mental status changes, or other significant issues, waiting overnight is not appropriate.

Most urgent care visits are really not that urgent. They can be handled during normal business hours in your medical home!

Related posts

Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold!

Convenience Care

Help Us Help You! Make the most out of phone calls

Improper Use of Antibiotics: Don’t take the risk

Top 10 Tips for Going to an Urgent Care

Evolution of Illness

Why Wait to See Your Regular Doctor When the Urgent Care is Right There?

Convenience Care

Healthcare is available at many locations, such as in the medical home (primary care office), at a specialty clinic, in a hospital or a surgery center, freestanding urgent cares, pharmacy based urgent cares, emergency rooms, telehealth companies, school health clinics and more. Convenience care is what I use to describe the care people desire here and now, when it’s convenient and where it’s convenient.

There are places that are best suited for one issue and others suited for other issues. Sometimes people choose a location based on what’s convenient at the moment, not necessarily when and where they will get the best care. This usually isn’t going to make much of a difference, but it can have implications of varying consequences. Convenience care is not equal to the best care, and sometimes not even equal to good care.

The one about the restaurant

My family likes to go to Primary Restaurant for great food. We know the food is high quality and the chef takes special care to make everything just right with healthy ingredients. The staff gives great service, always making sure we have what we need. Because there’s always room for improvement, they encourage quality development and the restaurant staff works to make things right to the best of their ability if a problem is identified.

source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Simpsons_Ride_-_KwikEMart2.jpg

But one night we decided to go to Convenience Cooks. We were hungry and Convenience Cooks was on the way home.

Were we starving to death? No. We had food at home we could have eaten, but Convenience Cooks was, well… convenient. Their menu was limited compared to what we are used to, but we were able to order something that was decent.

While we were waiting, I decided to call Primary Restaurant to see if it was a good choice or if we should leave and go to their restaurant. They said since I made the choice and was already waiting, I should just stay at Convenience Cooks.

The food wasn’t the quality we were used to, but we ate it. I had second thoughts at the end of the meal, so I called the Primary Restaurant to see what they thought. The staff who is usually so helpful wasn’t of any use helping me decide if what we ate was good for us or not.

Since none of us felt satisfied and left still hungry, I feel like Primary Restaurant should deliver food to our home, but they refused. They said we should go to Primary Restaurant to eat if we want their food. Why? I already paid Convenience Cooks and had most of a meal there.

Weeks later I get a bill from Convenience Cooks and am surprised about the cost of convenience, so I call Primary Restaurant to see if it’s usual for Convenience Cooks to bill added fees. Again, they said they couldn’t do anything to help with the bill. For a Restaurant that is usually so helpful, I feel like they are dropping the ball because they won’t help with anything that was done at Convenience Cooks. It’s like they don’t have any responsibility for what I eat elsewhere.

The one about specialists

In another scenario, you really want a good BBQ. Primary Restaurant specializes in All-American food, but they don’t offer slow-cooked BBQ, so they refer customers to BBQ-R-Us.

BBQ-R-Us is busy and requires reservations. Since you are used to same day seating at Primary Restaurant, you ask if they can get you preferential seating at BBQ-R-Us. After several phone calls back and forth with staff at each location, you realize you can be put on a waiting list, but no one was able to change your initial reservation.

When that time finally comes, you enjoy the ribs, but leave with questions. Instead of asking the BBQ specialists, you call Primary Restaurant to ask about how the ribs were prepared. You’re disappointed to hear that they can’t give details about the BBQ recipes and tell you to call BBQ-R-Us.

Even later you call Primary Restaurant to complain about the bill you got from BBQ-R-Us. You were surprised that the creamy corn was extra and they charged a seating fee. Again, Primary Restaurant isn’t very helpful in discussing the bill from BBQ-R-Us. They refer you back to BBQ-R-Us.

now change the names

Most people can see just how crazy it is for a restaurant to “fix” the problems with quality, cost, or service at another restaurant, yet many (MANY) people want their primary care physician to do just that after trips to convenience urgent cares or regarding specialist referrals. The scenarios above are based on real phone calls about medical care. These phone calls are not only time-consuming and costly for medical offices, but they’re also frustrating for the people on both sides.

Convenience Cooks = Urgent Cares

I’m sure I’m not alone when I get frustrated at the number of calls asking me to give an opinion of treatment received elsewhere, or to fix a problem that wasn’t fixed at an urgent care. I’m glad that patient families feel so comfortable with my office that they call to ask for help, but if I am not a part of the evaluation, I can’t help.

It’s not that I’m holding a grudge or trying to be mean, but I really can’t help. If I didn’t see the patient or at least have access to the medical record of the visit and know the provider well enough to understand their practice style, I have no idea what was really seen and done.

If you call my office because your child is having a problem with a medicine someone else prescribed, we will tell you to call the place that prescribed the medicine. We cannot manage what someone else prescribed. Often we hear that “they’re not open yet” or “they don’t do phone calls, they want us to come back.” Sorry. We will want to see your child before we treat him for this issue. You can bring him in or you can follow-up with the original prescriber.

On a similar note, if a patient sees someone else in my office, I can look at the medical record documentation. I know the people I work with well enough to know what they typically say and do, and along with their written plan I can usually offer assistance if they’re not available. Sometimes even then I will want to see a patient because symptoms change.

If someone outside my office sees a patient, I really don’t know what the level of exam was, the experience of the provider, or the specific details of the visit. Urgent cares are getting better at sending a summary of the visit to the primary care provider, but we still don’t receive any information a significant percentage of the time. Other than routine general advice, I can’t really say much about the issue. I cannot change or refill another provider’s order. I cannot order labs or x-rays based on another provider’s assessment. I believe that this is not good care and I would prefer to see the patient if they need advice or a change in the treatment plan from me. And I certainly can’t do anything about the bill from another provider.

Many problems seen at urgent cares can wait. I know it’s easier to get your child in tonight so they can maybe go to daycare/school tomorrow, but many of these things are viral and just take time. Even if it’s strep throat and they start an antibiotic at 8pm, they can’t go to school in the morning. If you would have called my office before going to the urgent care (or looked on our website for advice), chances are the issue could have waited until office hours by using some at home treatments to make it through the night.

The cost savings of staying out of an emergency room or urgent care can be substantial with many insurance plans. And my office would be available to help answer any questions that arise from that visit. (Note: sometimes when the symptoms change we still need to see a child again, but we are more likely to be able to help over the phone if we were the ones who saw the child than if they were seen anywhere else.)

There are now some urgent cares that are actually cheaper in dollars because of insurance contracts. I think this is a very short-sighted plan on the part of insurance companies and in the end will cost more in dollars and health complications. They are trying to save money by contracting with these urgent cares (or are merging with them). I worry that fragmented care will in the end increase costs because they won’t have access to a patient’s medical chart. Increased numbers of tests and prescriptions are often seen at ER/UCs compared to primary care offices because they don’t have a means to follow-up like the medical home does so they cover all the bases rather than take the watchful waiting approach that PCPs are able to take. At urgent cares patients will not have the benefit of seeing the same provider each time, so they will never develop the important doctor-patient relationship that can help if and when anything chronic develops.

BBQ-R-Us = Subspecialist Referrals

As for specialist referrals, I know it’s hard for people to wait for appointments, but I really can’t get people in any quicker than a schedule allows. If it is a real emergent or urgent need, I can talk to the doctor to see options, such as admitting to the hospital so they can be consulted, or having someone go to the ER, where they might stop by to see the patient. Usually it isn’t really that urgent from a medical standpoint, and waiting for the appointment is just what happens in the specialist world. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, it’s simply reality. Please don’t beg me to call them to get you in sooner. I cannot invent time and I can’t alter their schedule. Despite what the scheduler tells you, if the primary care doctor calls the specialist, the specialist rarely can get the appointment changed. I’ve done this frustrating scenario many times– often when I really want the child seen sooner than scheduled. Unfortunately it usually doesn’t significantly alter the appointment time. It just wastes my time and the time of the specialist.

After your appointment I cannot tell you if the treatment plan they propose is the best for your child. Once I refer, it’s usually because it is out of my knowledge base and needs specialist care. I can learn along with patients, but I rely on the specialist to know the latest and greatest in their field and they can give better advice than I can. I also don’t like to “step on toes” if I refer. If they are driving the bus, they need to drive. Back seat drivers can cause problems on the road. Let them drive the bus. If you really want another opinion, you’ll have to ask another specialist.

Expect higher fees any time you use a hospital based facility, whether it’s for an office visit, a lab, or a procedure. They not only have charges for the physician’s time, but they have facility fees to cover the costs of running the hospital.

The primary care physician cannot change the charges incurred at any other clinic or hospital. We recommend researching costs prior to care, but we know that this is very difficult unless you know exactly what will be done at every visit. We cannot tell you what another physician will do… I can’t even predict what I will do at a visit if you call me ahead of time. If your child has a fever and cough, I might send you home with at home treatment instructions without any expensive tests if the exam supports that. I might order labs or a CXR, prescribe a medicine, or admit your child to the hospital for treatment if the findings support that.

It’s hard to anticipate costs, and that’s a problem with our healthcare system. I know that, but it’s not in my control to fix that. Believe me, I understand as a consumer how frustrating and expensive healthcare can be.

We try to help by keeping a list of all our most common charges in the parent book in each exam room, but that doesn’t help plan before the visit. It only tells the maximum that will be charged, not the actual amount that will be the patient responsibility after insurance adjustment and payment. I understand how frustrating medical costs can be, but I can only help with what is in my control. Changing how our billing and insurance system works is not in my power. I can only play by the rules.