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Urgent-care clinics gain ground

Primary-care doctor shortage feeds trend

Several urgent-care medical centers are opening in the suburbs south and west of Boston, each scrambling to scoop up patients looking for convenient health care near their home or work.

By July, three urgent care centers are expected to be operating on Route 1 in Norwood — something of a medi-mile along the automile. Other recent openings include centers in Avon, Braintree, Brockton, Easton, Middleborough, Norwell, Pembroke, Plymouth, Quincy, Stoughton, and Weymouth, with more to come.

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Dr. Jack Cornwell, medical director for Quincy-based CareWell Urgent Care and former director of the emergency department of Morton Hospital, said there is a need for primary care physicians in Massachusetts, a situation exacerbated by the mandatory health insurance laws and comparatively lower reimbursement rates by insurers to primary care doctors.

Previously, he said, insurance companies did not embrace urgent care centers, making it necessary that patients get approval before visiting one.

He said the insurers have since decided that urgent care centers are a way to reroute people from emergency rooms and save money, so they have made it easier for people to go to urgent care, with co-payments similar to regular doctor visits.

He said insurers are also opening more urgent care outposts as a way to satisfy their customers.

But, he said, urgent care centers in themselves are not netting great sums of revenue.

‘I wanted herto feel betteras quickly as possible. . . . It’s convenient, andit works. I definitely wouldgo back.’

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“Urgent care has to be tightly managed to make it work,” Cornwell said, adding he believes urgent care centers will continue to open for some time.

Dr. Michael Hughes, who founded Health Express, says now that many people know what urgent care is — non-life- threatening care for such ailments as minor accidents, the flu, and abdominal pain — there will be more focus on what distinguishes each urgent care center.

He and his business partner, Dr. Christopher Whelan, bill Health Express, which opened its third location in Plymouth on April 15 after opening one in Pembroke a year ago and Weymouth in March 2012, as a nonprofit that hires emergency-room certified doctors and is owned by doctors.

Other urgent care centers tout the hospitals or insurers with which they are affiliated, and whether they accept Medicaid or offer services such as occupational therapy.

Roberta Zysman, chief executive officer of Dedham Medical Associates, part of Atrius Health, said its urgent care center in Norwood, which is affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, allows visitors to have their records from their primary care doctor retrieved if they are in the network and can then have information from that visit sent to their doctors, in or out of the network.

A recent visitor since the Norwood facility opened on Feb. 28 was Sharon resident Barbara Fine, whose daughter was on spring break visiting grandparents in Florida when she started to feel ill. When the daughter returned, she only had a couple days before she had to leave for the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“I wanted her to feel better as quickly as possible,” said Fine, a Hebrew school teacher. So, she said, she took her daughter on a Thursday evening after work, just hours after returning from Florida.

Fine said she liked that the doctor at the center was able to access her daughter’s medical records, and that she was able to get a prescription for antibiotics. By the time her daughter left on Sunday to head back to school, she was feeling better, Fine said.

“It’s convenient, and it works,” she said. “I definitely would go back.”

Lee Moehlenkamp, who with her husband, Kevin, formerly of the Hill Holliday advertising firm, runs Doctors Express in Braintree, said their patients see one of the two full-time doctors there, not a revolving door of doctors. She said their franchise, one of 10 Doctors Express centers in the state, has seen 19,672 patients in the less than two years it has been open.

“We were really looking to offer a needed service to the community,’’ Moehlenkamp said.

Dr. Ryan Welter, founder and owner of Tristan Medical’s six primary care centers, including in Avon and Raynham, with plans for more south and west of Boston, said he is revamping his locations to double as urgent care centers. He said he is adding staff and hours and opening the doors to accommodate regular patients as well as anyone from the community.

“The health care environment is rapidly changing,” he said.

Hughes said Health Express is partnering with Steward Health Care to open an urgent care center in Raynham at the end of June that will be affiliated with Morton Hospital in Taunton, and has agreed to manage one that will open in July on Route 1 in Norwood, which is home to Steward’s Norwood Hospital. The third urgent care center operating on Route 1 is Norwood Urgent Care, which has been open since 2010.

CareWell Urgent Care operates eight centers in Massachusetts, including one in Norwell. Among other providers, CareCentral Urgent Care has a center on Route 138 in Stoughton, Signature Healthcare offers urgent care services at its facility on Liberty Street in Brockton, and Compass Medical, part of the Steward Health Care System, lists urgent care centers for its East Bridgewater, Easton, Middleborough, and Quincy locations.

Jean Lang can be reached at jeanmcmillanlang@gmail.com.
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