- Health systems often see direct-to-consumer telehealth as a means of competing with retail and stand-alone urgent care services. Now one Texas-based urgent care network is using virtual care technology to carve its own niche in the crowded healthcare landscape.
Integra Urgent Care, which has run a number of walk-in clinics in and around Dallas-Fort Worth area since 2005, is boosting its presence with a telehealth platform and mobile app that allows consumers to connect with the nearest location, schedule a visit – online or in person - and even choose a doctor.
“It’s an extension of what we can offer to our patients as a convenience,” says Amit Gupta, Integra’s founder and CEO. “For us, it’s all about patient engagement. We want to present ourselves as a one-stop shop for basic care, so we need to set ourselves apart.”
Gupta sees his clinics not necessarily as competition for health systems and hospitals, but as something that can help them ease congestion in crowded ERs and clinics and funnel people to where they can get the most convenient and effective care.
Health systems “want to capture long-term engagement,” he says, so they’re creating mHealth and telehealth resources that enable patients to connect at any time for ongoing healthcare. But stand-alone clinics like Integra are looking to handle one-off cases – unexpected health concerns that don’t really merit a trip to the ER but do require medical care.
Stand-alone clinics are just one piece in the ever-shifting environment. Realizing the strain on their ERs and staff, some health systems and hospitals have launched their own direct-to-consumer services, either on their own or with help from telehealth vendors. Others have handed off those services to an outside vendor.
In other cases, health systems have partnered with pharmacy chains, supermarkets and other retail locations to open clinics, thereby extending the brand. Some of those relationships allow the pharmacy to open its own branch location within the hospital.
The key ingredient to these different services is providing convenient care for consumers when and where they want it.
“The market is changing,” Gupta says. “People are becoming more interested in this type of care” because they’re often busy, on the move, and reluctant to wait in a crowded hospital or schedule a primary care visit a few weeks in the future.
And in a crowded metropolitan area with at least three stand-alone urgent care chains, Gupta says a connected care platform “is something that sets us apart.” Consumers can log on, find the closest clinic and either have their concerns address through an online visit or schedule a walk-in appointment a few minutes or hours in the future.
Gupta says Integra has a number of repeat customers as well as a handful who use the chain as their primary care provider (they do accept Medicare and Medicaid), but the majority of visits are for quick, convenient care in between the regular checkups or visits with the PCP.
To that end, he says partnerships with local health systems “are definitely an option.” A hospital could arrange for Integra to handle its non-urgent care business, he says, thereby freeing up the ER for more urgent cases and reducing the workload on its physicians and nurses.
“It’s definitely an opportunity for them,” he says, noting that most of his staff have relationships with local health systems.
“What you’re really doing is providing a service,” he says. “You may even be catching people who would otherwise fall through the cracks” and not seek healthcare due to the inconvenience – in some cases allowing a health concern to develop into a more pressing issue that does require treatment or even hospitalization.
Gupta feels telehealth will help him extend his services out into rural areas, where access to healthcare is minimal. Out there, he says, a stand-alone urgent care clinic might be the only option for care, and a telehealth platform would enable Integra to cover more than one such clinic with doctors located elsewhere.
He’s also considering concierge care, and a telehealth platform that allows his staff to follow up with patients to make sure they’re following care plans and reconnecting with their PCPs.
“We’re trying to break through that barrier, that mentality,” that telehealth isn’t as good as in-person care, he says. “Once you get past that, the door is open.”