Do you know when you should call your primary care provider for a medical concern versus when you should go to an Urgent Care or Emergency Department?
Now, perhaps more than ever, knowing where to go for care is critical for both your health and for efficient operation of the healthcare system as a whole.
Across the country, Emergency Departments, Urgent Cares, and doctors’ offices are facing an influx of patients and extended wait times due to a variety of factors, including staffing shortages, a recent surge in contagious illnesses, and a backlog of patients who haven’t seen a doctor in two years. This problem is exacerbated when patients don’t seek the most efficient venue for their care, causing additional bottlenecks, cancellations, and delays.
“What we're asking for is partnership in your care. Before you jump in the car, let us help direct you where you should go,” says Charity Hensley, Director of Operations for Urgent Care and EZCare at MyMichigan Medical Group. “It’s understandable that people seek care at whatever location is ‘open now’ but the real trick to avoiding long waits is to choose the facility that has the right skillset and setup for your needs. We’re asking patients to please call their primary care provider first so that we can triage you by your symptoms, acuity level and location, and guide you to the appropriate place for care. This is especially true if you might be contagious, since we have special protocols to safely see you without infecting others.”
“It’s understandable that people seek care at whatever location is ‘open now’ but the real trick to avoiding long waits is to choose the facility that has the right skillset and setup for your needs,” says Charity Hensley, Director of Operations for Urgent Care and EZCare at MyMichigan Medical Group. (Photo: Gabrielle Haiderer/Epicenter)
Hensley says many Urgent Cares are seeing patients come in to address chronic conditions or try to get refills on prescriptions, which is not what Urgent Care should be used for.
“In urgent care, we are here for your acute, urgent needs. We do not have the ongoing relationship with patients to effectively manage their chronic conditions. So, we will partner and assist our internal primary care providers as appropriate, but the nature of urgent care is exactly that – it’s acute and urgent needs,” she explains. “Our providers shouldn’t be refilling maintenance prescriptions such as insulin or blood pressure medications since we’re not the ones who are caring for those conditions. Instead, patients should contact the provider who originally prescribed those medications, and they should do that before their supply gets low, so their provider has plenty of time to process their request during normal business hours.”
In addition, COVID-19
still has lingering impact on the volume of patients going into Urgent Cares and Emergency Departments, as does the recent surge in RSV
“It's important that the community understands that Urgent Cares are really dealing with two more viruses - RSV and COVID - that are impacting those wait times and volumes that weren't there before,” says Hensley. “Truthfully, I don't see that landscape changing. They're going to be here to stay so we're trying to navigate that.”
Hensley adds that part of the ongoing challenge is that businesses and employees are still trying to navigate COVID regulations, and people are still quite cautious when they experience minor symptoms, such as a cough or tickle in their throat. As such, people who, pre-COVID, would have perhaps allowed those minor symptoms to continue for a couple of days before seeking medical attention – or perhaps they wouldn’t have sought medical attention at all – are going to Urgent Care or the Emergency Department the first morning they feel ill.
COVID-19 still has lingering impact on the volume of patients going into Urgent Cares and Emergency Departments, as does the recent surge in RSV cases. (Photo: Gabrielle Haiderer/Epicenter)
Hensley says, “I feel that it's okay to allow yourself that time to decide, ‘Do I really need to run in to the doctors’ office right now, or can I take care of myself at home and wait a couple of days to see what happens? What really is the best course of action for me right now?’”
By seeking attention at the first onset of symptoms, medical facilities are facing a drastic increase in the volume of patients seeking care, which naturally increases wait times, sometimes resulting in patients leaving without receiving medical attention – even if they do need it.
In fact, a study
published in September, 2022 by researchers from the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, and Yale University found that between January 2017 and December 2021 the rate of patients leaving Emergency Departments without being seen nearly doubled.
“We are seeing patients leaving the ER with the long wait times, but a lot of that is due to what I would consider inappropriate utilization of our Emergency Departments,” says Jeff Meden, Director of Operations for MyMichigan Medical Group. “For all non-life-threatening conditions, we are asking patients to instead call their primary care provider or choose one of our many acute options, including Urgent Care, EZCare or Walk-In Care, so as not to flood our Emergency Departments.”
Meden adds that primary care providers have appointments set aside for sudden illness, although patients should allow more time to get an appointment, given the current volumes.
“What we're trying to do is reserve acute slots so if someone has an established relationship with a primary care provider, they can call and have a virtual appointment or an in-person appointment quickly. In cases where that primary care office can't get you in quickly they can give you the appropriate recommendation of where to go,” he explains.
Meden says another option for those who have minor health concerns such as an ear infection, cough, or bee sting is to use EZCare
, which offers virtual and in-person care. The physical office for this is located at Meijer in Bay City, West Branch, and Sault Ste. Marie.
Patients can also expedite their care by utilizing the patient portal, MyChart.
“They can use the widgets in the app to find appointments or book virtual appointments. They can pre-register through that app, which will cut their time down in-person and when you're done with your visit for the day, all of your documentation, your after visit summary, and where we sent your medications is all right there on hand,” says Hensley.
Both Meden and Hensley say one of the most important things that patients can do right now to ensure they receive timely care, though, is to make sure that they have a primary care provider. If not, they encourage starting that process.
One of the most important things that patients can do right now to ensure they receive timely care is to make sure that they have a primary care provider. (Photo: Gabrielle Haiderer/Epicenter)
“Don’t wait until you’re sick to get a primary care provider. Even if you're well right now and you don't have any chronic medical conditions, establishing with a primary care provider now will benefit you later,” says Hensley. “If the first available new patient appointment is a few months out, but you're well, that's okay because that will allow you to be on someone's panel and provide you more options for your sick visits when you wake up and don't feel well.”
No matter where you receive care – whether it’s through your primary care provider, Urgent Care, or the Emergency Department – Hensley adds that it’s important to remember that each of the healthcare providers there is trying to get you in and out as quickly as possible, with the best care possible.
“We understand that wait times are an inconvenience. However, our care teams are doing the very, very best that they can. So when patients do present, it's important that we treat each other with kindness and respect,” she says. “There is definitely a decrease in civility that we're seeing towards all healthcare workers. We're here to take care of our patients and we're doing this in the fastest possible way in the safest way we can.”