Demand, convenience and opportunity are driving rapid growth of urgent care clinics in Baton Rouge

  Point of Care Health Group co-CEO and chief medical officer Dr. Rubin Patel, left, see a lot of potential for growth in Baton Rouge. Photography by Don Kadair

Point of Care Health Group co-CEO and chief medical officer Dr. Rubin Patel, left, see a lot of potential for growth in Baton Rouge. Photography by Don Kadair

By: Gabrielle Braud

On any typical day, a steady stream of patients can be seen trickling in and out of Patient Plus Urgent Care on Florida Boulevard by foot, bike and car. Located just seven blocks from Baton Rouge General’s Mid City campus, the clinic opened in November in an attempt to help fill the health care void left by the shuttering of the hospital’s emergency room last spring.

With a fresh façade and bright new branding on its building, the clinic’s arrival in the neighborhood has sparked new optimism for surrounding residents and businesses owners, says Vishal Vasanji, co-CEO and chief operating officer of Point of Care Health Group, parent company of the clinic. For example, Vasanji says, the automotive repair shop across the street from the clinic is planning renovations to enhance their curb appeal and the overall appearance of the block.

Investing in the community was precisely the idea Vasanji and Dr. Rubin Patel, formerly the head of Ochsner Baton Rouge’s urgent care department, had in mind when they decided to establish their flagship clinic. The two weren’t initially looking at Mid City as a place to open their first clinic—which is one of many that have popped up in Baton Rouge in recent years, in line with a national trend for the rapidly growing industry. But when market conditions changed, so did their plans.

“I was a resident at Earl K. Long [charity hospital] and also did shifts at Baton Rouge General, so when the ER shut down, I felt like there was a void,” says Patel, Point of Care co-CEO and chief medical officer. “Realizing that ER visits are mostly primary care or urgent care related, we thought this would be a great start.”

With both their families involved in the hotel industry, the friends teamed up to form Point of Care Health Group in November 2014. Their aim was to combine their collective hospitality experience with Vasanji’s knowledge of the financial world, having run several other successful businesses, and Patel’s background managing urgent care clinics to create a patient-driven business model. With a focus on hotel-like hospitality in every aspect of their business, from the way people are greeted at the reception desk to the patient experience in an examination room, the two want Point of Care to break the mold of what people have come to expect from urgent care clinics.

Standing out may be key in a market with ever-growing competition among urgent care clinics.

COMPETING TO PROVIDE CARE

For more than a decade, Baton Rouge has seen the proliferation of urgent care clinics driven by a constantly changing health care environment.

Urgent care clinics have increasingly become an attractive option for patients and physicians alike, locally and nationally, as each struggles to navigate the complexities of high deductible health care plans as well as the increasing size and scope of hospital groups. For example, General Health System, which owns Baton Rouge General Medical Center, and New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System announced in March that they had formed a new strategic partnership that they say will create a “combined integrated system that includes joint governance, management and financial integration.”

“In Texas, every corner has an urgent care clinic,” Vasanji says. “It hasn’t come to Louisiana and Baton Rouge at that rate yet, so we saw an opportunity for us to get in and establish a presence really quickly, and we were confident in our ability to do it. We also saw people were getting tired of the same old options.”

Seventeen years ago, a pair of emergency room physicians at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center had a similar idea. Dr. Kevin DiBenedetto and Dr. Graham Tujague began to wonder what could be done to relieve the hospital’s crowded emergency room and treat patients more efficiently. They saw a need for a clinic that specialized in illnesses and injuries that may not be serious enough for the emergency room but couldn’t wait for a trip to a family doctor. Back then, the idea of urgent care medicine was a relatively new concept.

The co-founders formed Premier Health and launched Lake After Hours in 1999 with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center at Siegen Lane and Perkins Road.

“We feel like we were a pioneer in the industry in terms of joint venture partnerships with hospitals,” says Premier Health CEO Steve Sellars. “And so we’ve taken that model and repeated it in other markets.”

Lake After Hours now has nearly 18 clinics in the Capital Region and sees approximately 120,000 patients a year. Nationally, Premier Health manages 40 affiliated clinics with 600 employees. And more growth is in the works, with potential for partnerships to open more clinics in New Orleans, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee and Puerto Rico.

PATIENTS TURNED PATRONS

Due to competing priorities, hospitals find it attractive to partner with Premier Health because they can provide a turnkey model for urgent care that acts as an extension of the hospital, Sellars says.

“They get all of the downstream revenue, but they are not in it for the money from urgent care,” DiBenedetto says. “They are in it for everything it brings to their hospital and for their reputation from it. … It gives them a footprint where they might not be.”

Tujague likens urgent care clinics to “the front door to the hospital” because they provide referrals to emergency rooms, primary care networks, specialists, imaging, lab tests and more.

They also free up the patient load for busy doctors. Dr. Curtis Chastain, president of Our Lady of the Lake Physicians Group, has some 3,000 patients who call him their primary care doctor. He says the Lake After Hours not only allowed him to refer his patients somewhere other than the emergency room for urgent, but not emergent, conditions. It also helped him extend the reach of his practice after work by being able to confidently refer patients to colleagues at the OLOL-affiliated clinics.

“When the after hours model came out, it was a beautiful solution to a problem for those patients who were sort of in that gray zone,” Chastain says. “It filled a huge gap in my practice. It is almost like an extension of me.”

Patients like the convenience of urgent care clinics, which typically do not require an appointment and are open beyond usual business hours. The clinics also allow patients to have control of their health care dollars with the rise of high deductible insurance plans.

“You’re taking the time and making the effort to choose what suits you best, and it may not be your traditional primary care model anymore because you can’t get in,” Chastain says. “You have options now.” This trend, coined the “consumerization of health care,” has led Chastain to develop his own alternative care models—a membership-based Executive Wellness concierge practice.

At Patient Plus, Vasanji and Patel are making a concerted effort to cater to people as consumers, rather than patients, by paying attention to not only the quality of care but also the clinic aesthetics. That means comfortable chairs in the waiting room and glass doors on examination rooms—a way to improve transparency—to ensure patients enter feeling welcomed and leave having had a meaningful interaction.

“Patients have a choice of what kind of experience they are going to get at a doctor’s office,” Vasanji says. “We know you have an option when you leave our building and before you even get to our building.”

For that reason, clinics such as Patient Plus and Lake After Hours market the convenience of quick, in-and-out care, as well as flexible paying options such as discounted cash pricing as an alternative for patients with high deductibles.

LEAVING THE GRIND BEHIND

The idea of patients as consumers coupled with the increasing size of hospital groups is driving many doctors away from frenzied hospital and emergency rooms environments. Many are finding their freedom at urgent care clinics.

“I think health care, in general, is becoming more dominated by just a few massive corporate players, and it has lost that personal touch and approach to helping patients out,” explains Joseph Thomas, an emergency room doctor who is also working to open his own urgent care practice on Juban Road in Livingston Parish.

Like many other emergency room physicians turned entrepreneur, Thomas hopes his clinic will help unburden emergency rooms and provide convenient, quality care in areas of Baton Rouge that are lacking. But he also sees urgent care as a path to more autonomy as a health practitioner.

“Everyone is feeling the grind, I suppose, of working in the big hospitals where things are just so hectic,” he says.

He says the goal for his clinic, set to open this fall, is for it to be hyper-local.

“I have no desire to become another massive corporate entity,” Thomas says. “My real goal is to have one or two clinics that provide quality service that will get back to what I became a doctor for, which is serving the community.”

TRIAGE

With news of new urgent care clinics opening in the Baton Rouge area occurring more and more frequently, one has to wonder how many more the market can hold.

DiBenedetto argues that the local market is “pretty saturated” in terms of the number of clinics. However, he sees ample room for growth in the volume of patients seen within existing clinics.

Conversely, Patel and Vasanji see endless possibilities for growth. Point of Care Health Group has two more clinics in the works: one in the Towne Center/Bocage area next to City Pork and the other in the Sherwood Forest/Coursey Boulevard area between The Londoner and South of Philly. They have an aggressive expansion model for their company and plan that their clinics in the Capital Region will reach double digits in five years.

Sellars, who will be installed as board president of the Urgent Care Association of America on April 18, says the urgent care sector has strong growth projections for the next five to 10 years. The number of clinics across the country, estimated to be around 7,500 currently, is expected to grow by 4% to 6% over the next few years, he says.

“There are a lot of people that say urgent care may one day be the first point of contact in to the health care system,” he says. “As the years go by, more people will come to urgent care clinics first.”

Source: Baton Rouge Business Report