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Partners closes 2 urgent care sites

The Partners Urgent Care center in Medford is one of two closed by the health care giant. Officials said the Medford location will reopen. The other closed location is in Burlington.
The Partners Urgent Care center in Medford is one of two closed by the health care giant. Officials said the Medford location will reopen. The other closed location is in Burlington. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

The state’s largest health care provider has closed two of its walk-in urgent care clinics, in Burlington and Medford, citing staffing challenges and low patient numbers.

Officials at Partners HealthCare described the closures as temporary. They said they expect to reopen the Medford location, but have no immediate plans to reopen the Burlington site.

The shutdowns are a small but rare setback for Partners, the state’s most powerful health care system, which launched into urgent care in 2015. Partners owns several hospitals, including Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s in Boston.

Chief financial officer Peter Markell said the urgent care business is “not where we want it to be.”

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“There’s a market there,” Markell said. “It’s just about execution, getting the marketing strategy right, getting the staffing right.”

Partners, a nonprofit health system, entered the urgent care business in partnership with a for-profit Texas company called MedSpring. The clinics were branded under the Partners name and run by MedSpring, a division of Fresenius Medical Care. But Partners officials were disappointed with MedSpring’s management and took full control of the unprofitable clinics last summer.

Now Partners officials are reevaluating their strategy. “In a year,” Markell said, “I’ll tell you whether it’s going to fly or not.”

Of the 10 urgent care centers, Partners officials said, their downtown Boston and Brookline locations are the busiest. They plan to open two new sites, in Natick and Westwood, this summer.

In December, Partners rolled out an electronic health record system at the urgent care centers, which previously used a different system than the rest of the Partners network.

Urgent care centers are walk-in clinics that typically stay open on nights and weekends, serving patients with sore throats, sprained ankles, allergic reactions, infections, and other urgent medical issues. They are considered a lower-cost alternative to hospital emergency rooms.

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Their numbers have proliferated in recent years, to more than 150 in Massachusetts, as patients demand more convenient medical care.

Massachusetts has no official definition for urgent care centers; they can range from small physician offices to large facilities with imaging equipment and laboratories. They are often located in shopping centers and along busy central roads, and they tend to treat relatively small numbers of low-income patients on Medicaid.

Some are managed by for-profit chains while others are run by local nonprofit hospitals, and they’re staffed by physicians or other providers such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Two other urgent care operators said Wednesday that they have not experienced the problems that Partners has encountered.

“Our centers are busy, and we’re fully staffed,” said Shaun Ginter, chief executive of CareWell Urgent Care, which has 16 locations in the state.

Jim Brennan, a Massachusetts-based executive at American Family Care, a national urgent care company, said the industry is increasingly attracting job seekers as it becomes more established. “That credibility is there,” he said.

AFC Urgent Care has 21 locations in Massachusetts.

Urgent care represents just a tiny piece of the Partners network, which is anchored by its big Boston teaching hospitals. Last week, Partners reported earning $270 million from operations in the six months that ended March 31. The hospital system collected revenue of $6.8 billion during that period.

Partners — which competes locally with several other hospital systems, including Beth Israel Lahey Health, is planning to open additional outpatient clinics in busy suburban areas. Partners officials have not yet revealed the details of those plans.

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Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.