Regional urgent care provider Patient First is offering telehealth appointments for its patients in Pennsylvania, and drive-up COVID-19 testing at a number of its locations in the state.
In a press release the health care company said that telehealth services are available for anyone 18 or older who was previously a patient at one of the Patient First brick-and-mortar clinics in the past five years.
Patients can call ahead to determine eligibility for a telehealth appointment. Eligible patients will be connected to a physician who will review medical history and conduct a virtual exam.
If a prescription is needed the physician can electronically transmit it to the patient’s pharmacy.
For patients who have insurance that covers telehealth visits, Patient First will bill the insurer. A routine visit will cost $75, and $35 for a follow up, for patients without telehealth coverage.
Patient First has also begun offering drive-up COVID-19 testing at a number of its locations.
Sites with drive-up testing capabilities include the location on Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem; Papermill Road in Wyomissing; Jonestown Road in Harrisburg and East Germantown Pike in East Norriton in Montgomery County.
Testing is by appointment only. Appointments are made by calling a designated testing center.
Patients will be asked about symptoms and risk factors to determine if they meet screening criteria based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Criteria include the presence of COVID-19 related symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing and a fever.
Those who work in health care or need a test to determine eligibility to return to work or to obtain needed health care treatments, such as cancer treatment, are also eligible.
Samples are sent to a third-party reference lab for testing. Results will generally be available in about two to four days and will be accessible on Patient First’s Patient Portal.
Most testing is covered by health care insurance. The cost is $90 for those who are self-paying.
Testing is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.
Patient First is providing drive-up COVID-19 testing at its location along Paper Mill Road in Wyomissing in Berks County.
Tests are by appointment only.
Patient First, a Virginia-based chain of walk-in urgent care centers, is offering the COVID-19 testing at the Wyomissing site by appointment only.
According to a statement from the Virginia-based chain of walk-in urgent care centers, appointments can be made by calling the designated testing center. Patients will be asked about symptoms and risk factors to determine whether they meet screening criteria set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients must have one or more symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat), or be a healthcare worker or first responder to qualify.
Tests will be conducted 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.
Test samples are collected outside the center and patients may remain in their vehicles. The staff member collecting samples is equipped with proper personal protective equipment, including an N95 mask, gloves, eye protection, and gown.
Samples will be sent to a third-party lab for testing, with results available in two to four days. A nurse will call patients once results are available, to share results, provide guidance and answer questions.
There is no out-of-pocket cost for COVID-19 testing for insured patients. For self-pay patients, the cost is $90 plus a separate bill from the lab.
Appointments are not needed for visits unrelated to COVID-19 testing. All Patient First Medical Centers, including the designated testing centers, remain open on a walk-in basis from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day for patients who have an urgent need for medical or injury care, the company says.
Kimberly Sheets, M.D., is the medical director of the Patient First centers in Allentown and Bethlehem. She has been with Patient First since 2012, and has been practicing medicine in the Lehigh Valley since 2000.
Patient First provides urgent care on a walk-in basis from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day of the year. Each of its medical centers has on-site services such as x-rays, lab tests and prescription drugs. Patient First was founded in 1981 and has been in the Lehigh Valley since 2012. There are three Patient First centers in the Lehigh Valley: Allentown, Bethlehem and Kimberly Sheets, M.D. – Kimberly Sheets, M.D. – Easton.
LVB: How are urgent care centers changing the way modern health care is delivered?
Sheets: There is a general focus in health care toward convenience and cost-savings. Urgent care centers like Patient First align nicely with those goals, offering extended hours, a wide range of on-site services, and walk-in access. We serve as a convenient, cost-effective alternative to the emergency room for non-life-threatening conditions.
Many of the conditions routinely treated at hospital emergency rooms are treated at Patient First at a fraction of the cost and much more quickly. Though many of our patients receive complete care at Patient First without requiring additional follow-up, if necessary, we will refer patients requiring additional care to specialists or to hospital emergency rooms, as appropriate.
Additionally, we are open extended evening, weekend, and holiday hours – times when a traditional doctor’s office is typically closed. We also have many on-site services not often found in a traditional doctor’s office like x-rays, lab tests, EKGs, and prescription drugs.
LVB: What role do you see urgent care centers playing in a person’s or family’s overall health?
Sheets: Urgent care’s primary role is providing convenient, cost-effective care. We make it easier for patients who are sick or hurt to get the care they need.
We have always made it a point to work collaboratively with other health care delivery sites: primary care physicians, specialists and hospital systems. For example, if a patient wishes us to do so, we will forward a copy of the visit record to his or her primary care physician. We continue the collaborative approach as health care evolves and new collaborative models take shape.
LVB: Does technology play a role in how you are able to assist patient care?
Sheets: Technology touches every step of the patient journey, from before the visit to after it. We post provider schedules on our website so patients can find out when their preferred provider is working. Patients sign in and are registered electronically. We have had electronic medical records since we first opened in 1981. We have a wide array of on-site services, such as digital x-rays, a CLIA-approved laboratory, EKGs, nebulizer treatments, and on-site prescriptions. And if we do not stock the prescription a patient is prescribed, we will electronically transmit the prescription to the patient’s pharmacy of choice. After the visit, patients can log onto our Patient Portal to view their visit history and to review their lab results as soon as they become available.
LVB: Where do you see the urgent care industry headed in the future?
Sheets: I can only speak for Patient First. I predict more of what we have been doing for the last 38 years. That is, providing convenient and friendly care to our patients, and working collaboratively with the other components of the health care landscape: primary care physicians, specialists, hospitals and health systems, insurance companies, employers, and of course our patients.
Two years ago my daughter Annabelle, then 10, came down with a high fever and sore throat. She was fading in and out of sleep, and I was getting worried. Because she was so sick, I chose to take her to the walk-in urgent care center near our home, rather than her pediatrician, which was further away.
I just wanted Belle to be seen as fast as possible.
Sure enough, right after signing in at the urgent care, Annabelle was ushered in to see a doctor. She was quickly given tests on-site that determined she was dealing with both the flu and strep throat. A double whammy for my poor girl.
After a speedy visit, we were sent on our way with the doctor’s sympathies, a prescription for antibiotics and a note for school. I promptly brought Annabelle back home to bed where she spent a two weeks recovering.
I was glad to be able to take advantage of the convenience of the urgent care clinic. We didn’t have to spend hours in an emergency room waiting room, and we didn’t have to wait for her primary care doctor to call back with test results.
We got quality care, quickly, as advertised.
My daughter and I are reflective of the growing number of health care consumers who are turning to urgent care centers rather than traditional primary care offices in recent years.
Patients are rushing to these urgent care centers, which offer medical care for minor emergencies and illnesses at a fraction of the cost of the traditional emergency room. In addition, these walk-in clinics often offer convenient access to tests and services not available at most primary care offices.
In fact, the utilization of non-emergency acute-care centers increased 140 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to research published in the Oct. 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association for Internal Medicine.
There are many reasons for this increase, including changing attitudes about primary care and primary care physicians, and new strategies put in place by the big health care networks.
“Many Americans, particularly millennials, don’t have a primary care physician anymore,” says Robert McDonald, professor of health care systems engineering at Lehigh University. “They don’t have any on-going relationship with any physician. They just want on-demand health care. They look for convenience and efficiency, and that’s what urgent care offers.”
For millennials, certain trademarks of care at a traditional primary care physician’s office, such as filling out pages of forms and waiting for appointments or test results, are “culturally intolerable,” he said.
Millennials have grown up in a world of on-demand convenience and they want the same from their health care.
Today’s primary-care physicians have changing needs too, Mcdonald said. They don’t want to be bogged down with the demands of running a business. And as an employee with an urgent care network, a doctor can concentrate solely on practicing medicine.
“They didn’t go to medical school to run a business,” McDonald says. “For a physician, working for an urgent care can be a nice employment alternative.”
The big health care networks are responding by opening their own walk-in centers in multiple locations.
“It’s become part of the horizontal integration strategy of the health networks,” McDonald said. “It is a way to integrate into the market, so that their urgent care docs can refer patients to the health care network’s specialists in a form of system integration. It’s a business relationship.”
Despite the many reasons behind the trend, McDonald doesn’t see traditional primary care offices disappearing completely, not for a while anyway.
“Some physicians simply like the independence of their own practice,” he says. “These tend to be older physicians however. The doctors coming out of medical school today are very different. The new graduates are the ones more likely to join up with a network.”
One such physician is Dr. Olga Vinshtok, regional medical director for Patient First, an urgent care network with offices throughout the Lehigh Valley. She chose to work at an urgent care center because for her, it offered a better work/life balance than other employment options.
Vinshtok is able to have select weekends and weekdays off, she says, allowing her to take care of her family’s needs, like going to the bank, the dentist, or on a field trip with a child.
“There is a great deal of flexibility,” she says. “The other major benefit to working at Patient First is that you do not have to take work home with you. Once your shift is over, your work is over.”
Vinshtok also values the compensation, benefits, and fast-paced atmosphere.
“I have the opportunity to treat a variety of conditions on a daily basis,” she says. “You never know what might walk through the door.”
Vinshtok attributes the growth in urgent care facilities to the gap the centers fill between a traditional doctor’s office and the ER. She also thinks patients appreciate the convenience of extended hours, walk-in access and the wide range of on-site services, such as on-site prescriptions, which can save a patient an extra trip to the pharmacy. And with a range of services and staff under one roof, patients can often receive complete care in one visit, she says.
Not for everyone
Urgent care centers aren’t a good match for every doctor or health care consumer, though. For physicians like Dr. Jeffrey Zlotnick, a family medicine physician based in Reading who once worked for an urgent care center, urgent care practices are a “mixed bag for physicians.”
“I sort of felt like I was losing my skills when I was working there,” he says. “It’s all about quickness, in/out. Some people like that. I don’t. …A doctor who values spending time with patients could feel stressed and like he or she is falling behind.”
Zlotnick sees the same mixed bag for consumers. Urgent care offices do a good job with what they are designed for, which is providing quick medical care for minor emergencies and illnesses, but they aren’t designed for building a relationship between doctor and patient.
“Complex problems can be missed,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen.”
Consumers need to understand what urgent cares can and cannot do, he said. In his opinion, if the diagnosis is complicated it’s best to sit down with someone who has the time to go over everything.
In time traditional primary care offices will regain popularity when patients, once again, desire a personal relationship with their physician, Zlotnick said.
“Patients are going to search for that connection again,” he says. “Health care trends may wax and wane but personal connection will never go out of style.”
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