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Urgent care demand sure to rise

Johnson City Press • May 16, 2018 at 8:30 AM

Ballad Health leaders are living up to their promises of eliminating redundancies in the wake of the merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System.

No one should have been surprised in April when the combined health system eliminated nearly 200 jobs — most of them administrative — through layoffs and attrition for increased efficiency.

It also was no surprise that Ballad zeroed in on whole facilities and their staffing. What surprised some, though, was which facilities Ballad knocked off first.

The system announced earlier this month that it was closing four urgent care clinics the two systems had established when they were competing entities. Both systems had clinics in Johnson City, Abingdon, Va., Kingsport and Greeneville, so Ballad decided to consolidate the clinics in each city. In proposing the merger, the two systems pointed to the costly duplication decades of one-upmanship the competition had fostered. Merger would end that practice and allow the system to refocus resources to expand services. Forty-two of the 150 layoffs resulted from the clinic consolidations.

But how will closing clinics impact patients?

Post consolidation, patient traffic at each urgent care clinic is sure to increase, potentially filling waiting rooms during peak periods. Think flu season.

Ballad spokeswoman Teresa Hicks, though, says the health care provider expects no effect on wait times. Hicks told the Press in an email that the average time a patient spends at its urgent care facilities — from arrival to exit — ranges between 35 and 48 minutes compared to the national average of 60 minutes.

“Ensuring we can provide quick and quality service is very important to us, as there are 21 other urgent care providers in our service area that compete aggressively for patients,” Hicks wrote. “Where necessary, we are renovating to add patient rooms to accommodate the additional volume.”

More and more, urgent care clinics are essential to our health care system as alternatives to costly emergency room visits for non-emergency situations. Employers and insurance companies actively encourage patients to use such clinics to mitigate costs. Providers like Ballad also have steered people to the clinics in hopes of easing the load in emergency departments. Industry estimates indicated a 20 percent rise in demand between 2010 and 2015.

We certainly hope Ballad’s math is right and consolidating the clinics will not make receiving urgent care harder and slower for patients. As health care costs continue to rise, the demand for urgent care facilities is bound to increase, and Ballad should be ready to respond with more capacity.

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