Walk-in clinics fill in for the family doc and the emergency room

Maybe you’ve been there. Stuck in an emergency room for hours for a minor problem—only there because getting in to see the family doc, or finding a primary care doctor in the first place, has proved too difficult.

In today's hectic world, busy people seeking an alternative method of fast and cheap health care are increasingly turning to urgent care facilities that can provide affordable care that cooperates with insurance companies and requires shorter wait times.

For overtaxed emergency rooms, it's a welcome respite to have additional doctors and nurses in the community who can deal with basic care for patients with lacerations, various infections or a even a broken bone.

Santa Fe's latest urgent care addition sprung up at the former location of a gas station along St. Francis Drive near the corner of the Railyard. It's a new, warm, brown adobe building with a splashy red logo reading "Railyard Urgent Care" out front.

Walk in and it feels like entering the office of a family doctor. A fountain bubbles in one corner of the waiting room, with soft-colored walls and decorative ceiling tiles. The exam rooms face outward, with windows to let in natural light.

"We wanted it to be homey and comfortable," says Dr. Victor Sherman, who shares ownership of the facility with business partner Troy Watson, also a physician. Sherman says Railyard Urgent Care is the only urgent care facility in the city that is privately owned and funded, the dream child of the two bilingual doctors.

"We wanted to have a good place for our employees," he says. "I've worked a lot of places where employees aren't satisfied, and in big corporations, it's hard to know the person you're working for."

By contrast, many urgent cares, in Santa Fe and nationwide, are owned by corporations. Sherman says locals are pleased with their homegrown model.

"They love that it's privately owned," he says. "A lot of people in the community don't like corporations. … They feel like they're just a number, so they like that we're locally owned and operated with doctors that work and live here and are invested in the community."

With Sherman and Watson's contrasting backgrounds in emergency medicine and family practice medicine, Railyard Urgent Care aims to fill the sweet spot between quality person-to-person care and the efficiency of the emergency room.

"Urgent care is more accessible, and it's a more efficient use of money as far as for the patient and for health care in general," says Sherman.

Inside the waiting room, a poster announces costs for various treatments for patients without insurance. At the bottom, a small banner offers price and time comparisons to emergency costs and waiting periods. According to the national survey that it cites, an average ER visit will run patients $1,318 with a two- to four-hour wait. At an urgent care? $125 and a 45-minute wait.

Sherman estimates that about 60 percent of people seen in an emergency room could be seen in an urgent care and that using urgent cares for nonemergency needs helps keep health care costs down in Santa Fe, which benefits everyone.

"It costs less; especially the co-pays are less," he says.

The Railyard Urgent Care is also a walk-in clinic. No need to call ahead for an appointment. In fact, you can't make one.

The clinic joins at least six other urgent cares, and two others are under construction. Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, Santa Fe's primary hospital and emergency room, has its own urgent care service located at the DeVargas Center, with plans to open a new one in south Santa Fe right across from the Walmart Super Center. The hospital supports the expansion of the clinics in Santa Fe as it takes strain off both emergency room resources and staff. The emergency room at St. Vincent treats 53,000 people per year, which roughly averages out to 145 people a day.

"The expansion of urgent care services in our community not only helps to ensure patients are seen quickly but also that emergency resources are conserved for patients who truly need them," hospital spokeswoman Mandi Kane writes SFR.

Presbyterian Healthcare, one of the biggest providers of health care and medical insurance in New Mexico, is also getting in on the action, building its first Santa Fe-based stand-alone medical facility across from the hospital.

In Santa Fe, urgent cares aren't alone in the fight to take stress off the emergency room and better educate the public about health care options.

Last December, the City of Santa Fe announced the Community Protection Initiative, which identifies ER "frequent fliers" and assists them with finding a primary care doctor if they don't have one, ensuring they have proper medicine and helping them better understand the health care system in Santa Fe.

Although Sherman was not familiar with the initiative, he says Railyard Urgent Care is doing its own part to help keep Santa Fe healthy and educated.

"If a patient comes in and doesn't have a primary care doctor, we try to help them find one," he says.

Santa Fe residents seem generally pleased with the quality of care they receive at the clinics.

"I went to UltiMed, on Paseo," says Kayla McMurtry, a longtime Santa Fe resident and new mother to 7-month-old daughter Ava. "We were seen really quickly, and the doctors and nurses seemed to really care."

For McMurtry, price is also a major determinant in where she goes for health care in Santa Fe.

"We're on insurance with the state, with Medicaid, so we were a little nervous they [UltiMed] wouldn't take our insurance, but then we called and they said they take all the insurance," she says.

There wasn't even a co-pay. "A visit that would have been $100 cost us nothing."

Even though McMurtry is wary of emergency rooms because of the cost and waiting time, she acknowledges that emergency rooms are often overworked and understaffed, which can account for the waiting time and level of care.

Urgent cares also benefit locals because they are more widely distributed around the city, making it easier for people to quickly seek treatment closer to home.

Aspen Medical Center on Zafarano Drive was the first urgent care to open on the Southside,also doubling as a primary care facility.

"It serves the community to access health care on this side of town," says Aspen spokeswoman Joanna Anaya.

Anaya agrees with Sherman and McMurtry that people should use urgent cares as a way to avoid the emergency room, both for time and cost reasons.

"Many people think a problem needs to go to the ER, when most of the time," she says, "an urgent care could take care of it. If necessary, we can transport them to the ER."

Anaya recommended going online for research or calling a facility to figure out when a medical issue is fixable at an urgent care.

Urgent cares and emergency rooms only want the same thing: to make the patient feel better.

When should you go where?

Knowing the difference between an emergency room problem versus something that can be quickly remedied at an urgent care is important. Many people tend to go to urgent cares to fix tiny problems like sprains and minor infections when family doctors are overbooked and can’t see them the same day they have the problem. Although emergency rooms and urgent cares fix problems quickly, one of the advantages of family doctors is that they know you and can help you manage your long-term health. If you’re ever in doubt as to the severity of an illness or injury, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and go to the emergency room, especially as it is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, unlike urgent cares.

Emergency Room:

This is the place to treat signs of heart attack or stroke, massive bleeding, severe pain, issues related to pregnancy or a baby or difficulty speaking, standing or breathing.

 Urgent Care: These clinics treat minor injuries or infections, cold and flu symptoms, fever, rashes and upset stomach.

Family Doctor:

The go-to pros for long-term hereditary illness treatment, shots, management and counseling of your overall long-term health, ensuring your child is reaching developmental milestones and general questions regarding your health.

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