BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — When the $144 million Mass General/North Shore medical complex opened on Endicott Street a few years ago, it was envisioned as a place to go for doctor’s appointments, day surgery and treatments, lab tests, X-rays and other outpatient services.
Last week, North Shore Physicians Group launched a new kind of walk-in service called North Shore Urgent Care in a 4,000-square-foot office suite in the lower level of the medical center.
The service is designed for people who need to see a doctor right away, but who are not suffering a life-threatening emergency. No appointment is necessary. And while it’s not an emergency room, there are emergency room physicians, as well as family practice doctors on staff.
It’s seen as a new model of care designed to head off emergency-room visits, a move that is being encouraged under the Affordable Care Act to make health care more efficient and cost-effective.
“We went into this because we had a large number of patients who were part of our primary-care base that were looking to have same-day sick visits or were looking to have primary care,” said Steven Kapfhammer, president of North Shore Physicians Group. The doctors group also noticed many of its patients were heading to the emergency department for non-life-threatening conditions, “which is a very high-cost setting.”
So, for the past two years, North Shore Physicians Group, which is part of the North Shore Medical Center in Salem and the Partners Healthcare system, ran a pilot urgent-care program for its patients who needed sick-day visits. It wound up treating 30 patients a day.
The clinic proved to be in such high demand that they decided to create a stand-alone, seven-day-a-week facility that is set up just for urgent care, treating patients from the community at large, and not just from its member doctors.
The facility is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends. Officials expect to double the number of patients in a few years, with the goal of treating 28,000 patients a year. The new urgent-care facility will employ about 25 people in a medical center where 450 people already work. And patients will be charged the same co-pay as for a doctor visit, not the much higher one charged for emergency-room visits.
This center is a hybrid, not a doctor’s office designed strictly for examinations, but not an emergency room, either. It’s meant for someone who has come down with conjunctivitis, a bad sore throat, or a cut that may require a few stitches, and who can’t get an appointment with his or her regular doctor.
It is also a place where doctors can send patients for follow-up visits or to do procedures that cannot be done in the doctor’s office.
“If somebody walked in and were sicker than they thought, we would stabilize them and get them off to the hospital,” said Janice Trombetto, administrative director for North Shore Urgent Care.
Caring for walk-in patients at a doctor’s office may be quite common, but the idea of setting up a separate suite designed just for urgent-care services is a model that is popular in other parts of the country and is now catching on around here, officials say.
There are other providers of urgent care on the North Shore. In Swampscott, Family Doctors LLC, a group practice of eight doctors and three nurse practitioners, offers walk-in sick visits at its treatment center on Paradise Road seven days a week. The center can provide acute care for illnesses and minor emergencies and refers major emergencies to the emergency room.
While the center welcomes the new urgent-care center in Danvers, “we’ve been doing it for over 30 years,” said office manager MaryAnn Walker.
CareWell Urgent Care also has plans to open a facility on Route 114 in Peabody, according to its website. A call to CareWell was not returned last week.
At the $30-million Lahey Outpatient Center on Maple Street in Danvers, which opened in 2007, walk-in patients are handled through individual primary-care physicians, said Gerald MacKillop, public relations manager for Lahey Health. Beverly Hospital has numerous private-practice physicians who see patients who need a walk-in visit, he said.
Unlike some urgent-care facilities, North Shore Urgent Care has access to Mass General/North Shore Medical Center’s lab and radiology services.
“Absolutely we could stabilize the sickest patient that walks through the door,” said North Shore Urgent Care’s program manager, Harriet Sanclemente. “We are fully ready to manage even the most life-threatening emergency while we are waiting for EMS to arrive. We have everything.”
As part of Partners HealthCare, the center can also quickly access electronic medical records within the Partners system, the state’s largest health care group.
Kapfhammer would not say how much it cost to develop this urgent-care suite but described it as a “large investment.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.