Rethinking Urgent Care: Improving Access and Staff Satisfaction with Virtual Partners

Updated on November 8, 2023

With the holidays and winter season nearly upon us, now is the right time for health systems and medical groups to think about expanding their urgent care capacity with the right type of virtual care partner. 

For a variety of reasons, emergency departments (EDs), urgent care centers and primary care offices all see spikes during the late-year holiday season and winter months. For one, flu season often surges around Thanksgiving and Christmas, with visits to friends and family members making transmission of influenza and other respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, more likely. Adding to that, colder temperatures and lower humidity make it easier for viruses to spread for several reasons

For many health systems, this surge in urgent and emergency visits will lead to long wait times, dissatisfied patients, burned out clinicians and staff, and worsening patient outcomes. For example, a study in Internal Emergency Medicine found that burnout of emergency physicians was associated with a prolonged waiting time for patients visiting the ED. Separately, long waits in EDs are associated with higher patient mortality and worse outcomes, according to a study in the Emergency Medicine Journal.

However, there is a way for health systems to overcome these surges: partnering with a virtual care provider that can handle more routine but urgent cases, such as Covid-19 and other upper respiratory infections, skin rashes, UTIs, and even minor accidents. The vast majority of these issues can be fully managed via virtual visits, while a smaller portion can be appropriately triaged to the right level of care to avoid excess ED utilization. 

Better urgent care access and coverage with virtual partners

This type of load balancing helps ensure quick, convenient access for milder issues, while freeing up in-person physicians and staff to care for more complex patients that need face-to-face attention, such as heart attacks, severe infections and major trauma cases. Additionally, patients often prefer telehealth to in-office visits for several types of care, according to a recent consumer survey. For example, 45% of consumers stated they prefer telehealth for minor but urgent issues, while 18% had no preference between telehealth and office visits, leaving only 37% who still preferred going into the office. This survey also found that consumers prefer telehealth over office visits for medication refills and test results (73% vs. 16%), and behavioral health needs (43% vs. 31%). 

In addition to the clinical and patient experience benefits, collaborating with an urgent virtual care partner also makes good business sense. First, if a health system cannot provide convenient virtual urgent care through their digital front door, then it may lose that patient to a competitor that offers that service. Second, adding a virtual care partner is a much more cost-effective approach than hiring additional doctors, particularly during a time when hospital staffing remains a significant challenge. Indeed, given physicians’ limited bandwidth and visibility, few health systems can, by themselves, deliver 24×7, 50-state virtual care coverage without significant cost overruns. 

However, not all virtual urgent care partners can generate the same value for health systems. For example, when health systems employ third-party telehealth platforms and providers to expand coverage, it means the virtual care providers are working on a separate computer system. This creates a discontinuous experience that frustrates both patients and providers, and compromises care quality because clinical data is not easily shared in either direction. 

In contrast, a better alternative is a partnership with a virtual urgent care provider that utilizes the same electronic health records (EHR) platform as the health system, ensuring seamless integration between the two EHRs and supporting the bi-directional sharing of clinical data. In this arrangement, all care team members have access to the critical patient information they need to optimize care and outcomes. 

A hypothetical virtual patient journey

Imagine a patient with a mild, but urgent, medical issue who goes to her health system’s patient portal looking for help. She finds that her system has a virtual urgent care partner that has providers available 24×7 for her convenience. The patient can complete a quick check-in process and begin a video visit with a provider. Because the health system and virtual care partner’s EHR portals are connected, she does not need to create a new username, input her medications, or add medical history. Meanwhile, the virtual provider has access to the patient’s information via bi-directional data-sharing with the health system’s EHR. After the visit, the patient receives an “after-visit summary” via the health system’s patient portal, and her notes are shared with the patient’s primary care team.

Better access and increased satisfaction

For most health systems, urgent care surges happen throughout the year and peak during the holiday and winter seasons. To address such surges, health systems may spend extra time and money to add staff or reduce access for new patients or for non-urgent care. Or worse, they may lose patients to competitors who offer more convenient care or create a discontinuous care experience by partnering with external virtual providers who use a separate EHR.

Fortunately, health systems now have the option to align with virtual care partners that provide a broad spectrum of clinicians working on the same technology they already have in place, allowing for robust interoperability. Patients get more convenient care at their preferred health system, while clinicians in the office and EDs have more balanced workloads. The end result is better access, a more seamless patient experience, decreased physician burnout, and care that is truly coordinated.

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Lyle Berkowitz

Lyle Berkowitz, MD, is CEO of KeyCare.