Howard County General Hospital has been looking for ways to reduce overcrowding in its emergency room, and the growth of urgent care centers in the area could be the solution, officials say.
In addition to helping educate the community about urgent care centers, the hospital is partnering with Patient First to open one in Columbia. The Patient First Medical Center, the company's first in Howard County, will open Wednesday, Aug. 10.
"We supported the opening of this center to supplement the care that's provided in the emergency department," said Mary Patton, the hospital's director of public relations. "Many people come to the emergency department for non-emergency issues. In order for us to keep the emergency room from becoming overwhelmed … this is a good supplement to services that the hospital provides."
In Fiscal Year 2011, which ended June 30, the hospital's emergency room had 76,093 visitors. The past few years have seen similar overcrowding: 74,653 visitors in FY 2010, 76,668 visitors in FY 2009 and 76,689 visitors in FY 2008.
Hospital officials were predicting a record number of emergency room visitors for the past fiscal year, and though that didn't happen, they still feel overcrowding is a problem that urgent care facilities like Patient First can help address.
Visiting the Patient First, Patton said, will also provide a benefit to residents, who run the chance of waiting a long time for treatment in the emergency room when it's overcrowded.
"Patient satisfaction in the emergency department has been low, mostly due to long wait times," she said.
Patton also noted that it is more expensive, with or without insurance, to visit the emergency room than to visit an urgent care center.
The Columbia Patient First, located at 5900 Cedar Lane, will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the year. The five staff physicians will provide walk-in medical services, including urgent care, primary care, x-rays, lab tests and prescription medications.
The services and the hours of the Columbia location will be the same as they are at the 34 other Patient First centers in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. But the partnership with the hospital is unique, as most Patient Firsts are owned and operated by the 30-year-old company.
"This will be the third management model center that we have," Patient First CEO Pete Sowers said. "It's just an arrangement with the hospital to manage the center for them."
The hospital also owns the land where the center will be located. It had been using the building as the place where Johns Hopkins specialists would come down from Baltimore a few times a week to visit with patients.
Johns Hopkins, which owns Howard County General Hospital, has partnered with Patient First on the other two management model centers, which are in Lutherville and Bayview (Baltimore), Sowers said.
Such a partnership is likely to provide a financial incentive, but since Patient First is a private company, Sowers declined to provide any information. Regarding the difference between the three management model centers and the other Patient First centers, he said: "From our point of view, it's pretty much the same."
Partnering with the hospital on the Columbia location, Sowers said, "was a mutual thing.
"When we surveyed the areas looking for what would be logical locations, this came up," he said, adding that the hospital has "been talking about it for years."
But had the partnership opportunity not existed, Sowers said Patient First still would have opened up a center in Columbia.
The hospital liked the Patient First brand, Patton said, noting "you know you're going to get a specific level of service with the brand."
One of the goals of the partnership, Patton said, is to reduce the number of people who use the hospital's emergency department for primary care.
"Many primary care physicians will send their patients to the emergency department if it's after hours or on weekends," she said.
In addition, Patton said there is a "shortage of primary care physicians within the community" and many of them have moved to a "boutique practice model." Under the boutique model, she said, patients pay an annual fee so the doctor can afford to have less patients and spend more time with them.
Though Patient First provides primary care opportunities for people, Sowers said the centers "usually (see) people with kind of urgent problems, medical as well as routine injury problems."