Amidst Nationwide Boom In Popularity, Does Traverse City Have Enough Urgent Care Capacity?
By Craig Manning | March 17, 2023
How urgent is northern Michigan’s need for more urgent care?
Over the past five years, urgent care has emerged as a hot trend in the world of healthcare, with millions of Americans trying out urgent care clinics for the first time. In the same period, though, one of Traverse City’s long-time urgent care businesses closed its doors over staffing issues, and a global pandemic flipped the script on how people access healthcare. All the changes beg the question: Is the local healthcare industry keeping up with urgent care demand? Or is this type of care becoming bogged down in the same lengthy wait times often associated with emergency rooms?
According to research from the urgent care software company Experity, the pandemic era has been huge for the urgent care industry. Experity surveyed roughly half of all urgent care businesses in the United States, and found that U.S. urgent care clinics saw a 58 percent year-over-year increase in visits in 2020. Half the people coming through the doors, clinics said, were first-time visitors. And while much of that traffic was spurred by patients seeking COVID-19 tests, COVID vaccinations, and other pandemic-related care, it also opened the door for more people to use urgent care for more things, such as primary care visits or outpatient physician visits.
That trend, of urgent care clinics effectively becoming one-stop shops for on-demand care, was already gaining steam before the pandemic: A 2019 report from Harmony Healthcare IT found a quarter of millennials hadn’t visited a primary care physician in five or more years, with most patients citing a preference for urgent care due to lower costs and speed of service. A pre-pandemic report from Urgent Care Association concluded that 70 percent of urgent care visitors wait less than 20 minutes to receive care, while a 2016 report published in Annals of Emergency Medicine tabulated the average cost of urgent care visits at $168 – less than 10 percent of a comparable ER visit.
“We have absolutely seen growth in urgent care throughout the pandemic,” says Ellen Smith, who serves as both COO of the physician network and president of ambulatory services and business development for Munson Healthcare. “We have two urgent care clinics right now in Traverse City, and we have multiple locations across the system. And then we’re also in the midst of expanding access on the virtual side. Whenever we’re not open in a brick-and-mortar location for in-person visits, we also want to be able to complement that with virtual visits for extended hours of access.”
Smith says Munson’s two TC-based urgent care locations – one at the Foster Family Community Health Center on Munson Avenue, the other at The Walk-In Clinic at 3074 N US 31 South – have been busy, but not overwhelmingly so. “Wait times at our in-person clinics can range anywhere from five minutes to over an hour, depending on the time of day, the day of the week, and whatever else is going on in town,” Smith tells The Ticker.
Demand has perhaps been elevated by last year’s closure of one of Traverse City’s few urgent care clinics. In March of 2022, Bayside Docs Urgent Care – which had operated for more than 20 years at 401 Munson Avenue – shared on Facebook that it would be “temporarily closed until further notice, due to significant staffing shortages.” In July, though, Bayside Docs announced that it would not be reopening.
Smith acknowledges the overall labor situation for the Munson system “continues to be a challenge,” but also says that staffing for Munson’s urgent care clinics “has been relatively stable.” She credits that stability in part to the rise of virtual care options. Munson has been able to recruit remote providers to work for its virtual urgent care service, and has even explored having some of those employees provide support to brick-and-mortar clinics as needed.
Virtual urgent care has also just helped make the traffic at walk-in clinics more manageable. According to Chelsea Szafranski, system director of digital health for Munson Healthcare, Munson’s virtual urgent care program launched last March and has seen countless patients since, ranging in age “from 3 to 103.” Particularly at peak times of the year, Szafranski says having a virtual urgent care has undoubtedly helped prevent overcrowding at local emergency rooms or brick-and-mortar urgent care locations.
“We tend to be pretty busy around holidays, and last summer we were really busy, especially with a lot of people from out of town,” Szafranski says.
Will urgent care remain popular as the stranglehold of the pandemic continues to loosen? On the one hand, Smith notes that many patients “learned [urgent care] was a quick and easy option]” during COVID – and that virtual urgent care, in particular, provides a good way to avoid getting sick or exposing others by sitting in a waiting room. On the other hand, she suggests the popularity of urgent care in northern Michigan may simply be the product of another issue: a shortage of primary care doctors.
“While urgent care is an important focus for us, we also know that we need to continue to increase access in our primary care practices,” Smith says. “So, whether that’s recruitment of additional providers, expansion of hours, or providing more same-day access in our primary care practices, those are ongoing initiatives [for Munson Healthcare]. I think there have been some constraints, especially in some of our smaller communities, as it relates to same-day primary care access, which has led people to other options, including urgent care.”
Szafranski says Munson has been working to roll out same-day virtual care capabilities at its primary care offices. “A lot of times, I think patients think they can only get a same-day virtual visit via our virtual urgent care, but many of our primary care providers support that now, too."
Northern Michigan will also soon have a new urgent care option: WellNow, one of the fastest-growing providers of urgent care services in the country, is set to open a location in Traverse City, at 3570 N. 31 South. WellNow has more than 180 centers nationwide, including 17 in Michigan. The company’s TC center was originally slated to open on March 1, but the opening “has been postponed due to unforeseen operational delays,” per Public Relations Manager Annie Keller. Keller says WellNow “looks forward to announcing a new opening date as soon as possible.”
The clinic will offer walk-in treatment “for a wide range of non-life-threatening injuries and illnesses such as sprains, burns, lacerations, cold and flu, strep throat, sinus infections, allergies and more,” as well as services like physicals, x-rays, on-site COVID testing, and drug and alcohol testing. WellNow also offers 24/7 virtual care.
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously referenced Laura Stoimenoff as CEO of the Urgent Care Association. Stoimenoff has not held that position since 2020.Comment