The state's largest health system plans to open as many as a dozen urgent care clinics over the next three years, a move that could shake up the fast-growing market for convenient, walk-in medical care.
Partners HealthCare will open its first clinic in Brookline's Coolidge Corner at the end of August. The next two clinics, in Newton and Watertown, are scheduled to open in the fall.
Urgent care centers cater to patients who have health problems — such as colds, infections, cuts, and fractures — that aren't serious enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room. Such clinics have been on the rise as more patients, facing long waits for doctor visits and high costs at hospital emergency rooms, seek new options for care.
Partners is late to urgent care. Steward Health Care System, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Lahey Health, and others also are already in the business, either directly or with partners.
But Partners has advantages in its size and reputation. It is the parent of 10 hospitals, including Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's, and has 6,000 doctors, the largest network in the state. It also is planning more urgent care locations than most of its competitors.
"This is more than a pilot for us," said Dr. Gregg S. Meyer, chief clinical officer of Partners. "These are meant to be extensions of availability and convenience for patients. We know we are not always as available as possible for our patients."
The clinics, to be branded Partners Urgent Care, are a joint venture of Partners and MedSpring Urgent Care, a subsidiary of Fresenius Medical Care, an international kidney dialysis-services company with US headquarters in Waltham.
The locations will be staffed by doctors who have the same credentials as doctors at Brigham and Mass. General, the health system said. They will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day and will offer lab tests, X-rays, vaccinations, and physicals.
Partners did not immediately disclose how much it will spend to open the clinics. The health system sees millions of patients and generated $11 billion in revenues last year.
Urgent care clinics appeal to patients who need care when their regular doctor's office is closed or is too busy to squeeze in a last-minute appointment. These clinics are less expensive than hospital emergency rooms and are meant to attract patients with minor problems who might otherwise seek care in emergency rooms.
"We're doing this because, in the long run, this will hopefully improve care and might save some costs," Meyer said. "But we're also doing it because our patients are asking for it."
Retailers, such as CVS Health, also have been opening clinics to respond to demand for fast and convenient care. Retail clinics are generally staffed by less highly trained providers, such as nurse practitioners, while urgent care clinics are staffed by doctors.
The number of urgent care clinics in Eastern Massachusetts has soared, from about half a dozen in 2010 to more than 60 this year, according to AFC Doctors Express, a Birmingham, Ala., company that operates 15 locations in Massachusetts.
Last year, Beth Israel Deaconess opened two urgent-care centers, in Chestnut Hill and Norwood, that have attracted existing Beth Israel patients as well as new ones. "We continue to explore all opportunities that meet our patients' evolving needs," spokeswoman Jennifer Kritz said.
The community hospital network that Steward is affiliated with has about 30 urgent-care centers, including several operated by Doctors Express. The partnership allows Doctors Express to refer patients who need follow-up care to Steward's doctors.
"We started seriously investing in this strategy several years ago," said Brooke Thurston, a Steward spokeswoman.
Another company, CareWell Urgent Care of Quincy, operates centers affiliated with Burlington-based Lahey Health and plans to open locations in Central Massachusetts that are affiliated with Worcester-based UMass Memorial Health Care.
"Consumer-driven health care, that's what we provide," said Shaun Ginter, chief executive of CareWell. "We see ourselves as completing the continuum of health care access."
Opening urgent care centers is a smart business strategy, said Ellen Janos, a health care lawyer at Mintz Levin in Boston. "It's a way to provide convenient care to existing patients and keep them in the system, as well as attracting new patients."