NORTH AUGUSTA — Robert Thatcher was feeling better after he got IV fluids Monday morning at University Medical Center Sweetwater.
A viral illness caused his first visit to the new center but “it won’t be the last,” said Thatcher, who lives a few miles away. “That’s why this is so convenient.”
The new office, which combines a Prompt Care for urgent service with a primary care office for regular visits, is the latest effort by University Hospital to open the combination offices in different population areas around the Augusta and Aiken areas. It is a concept that other health care providers are already pursuing or are preparing to follow soon.
The Sweetwater location is the fifth Prompt Care but plans are underway for another in south Augusta at Peach Orchard and Phinizy roads, and there will be more developments in Aiken and Columbia County, said Jim Davis, president and CEO of University.
The medical centers serve a dual purpose: the Prompt Care can take care of a lot of traffic that might go to an Emergency Room “that shouldn’t be in an ER,” he said. “From a consumer standpoint, it is too expensive to go to the ER. So they are better off coming to a Prompt Care. But then there is also the primary care side of this, where you have such a short supply of primary care doctors that we’re trying to recruit and retain good primary care physicians to be out in the community where the people live so they can get convenient primary care close to home. We’re trying to fill both of those niches with these facilities.”
In fact, the need is so great in the Sweetwater area that in the six weeks the center has been open there is a waiting list of nearly 300 patients – from Trenton, North Augusta and the surrounding areas – who want to use the primary care office, said Dr. Bo Sherwood, medical director of University Prompt Care. The problem is recruiting a primary care physician that will meet University’s standards to staff the office, Davis said.
University isn’t the only one who has or is looking to spread out across the region. At the AU Health System board meeting recently, plans were discussed for opening another outpatient care center, most likely in Columbia County. AU Medical Center has a license to build a hospital in Grovetown that is currently being held up by a last appeal from Doctors Hospital of Augusta.
The health system is using extensive data on the population and patient visits to do a “micro” ZIP code analysis of which sites would work best, said Dr. Julian Nussbaum, CEO of AU Medical Associates.
The health system has been talking about a new strategy toward ambulatory care for two years and that includes branching out, said Dr. Brooks Keel, president of Augusta University and CEO of its health system.
“Columbia County, yes, but what part of Columbia County?” he said. “What needs to go out there?”
What University is doing sounds similar to what the Center for Primary Care has already done, with nine offices around Augusta, stretching from Thomson to Aiken.
“We put a lot of time and effort into thinking through where we put our locations just for that reason of making sure that care is available in the community and in the places where people need access to it,” said Dr. Robert Suykerbuyk of the Gateway Office in Grovetown. But the Center for Primary Care also is looking to emphasize continuity of care so that there is a long-term relationship between the patient and a particular physician, he said.
“That relationship is not something necessarily where you can put a building up and reinvent from scratch,” Suykerbuyk said. The center also recognizes there is a shortage of primary care in the area, in part because of the population growth and projected growth, he said.
“We are always actively looking and recruiting ourselves but we are pretty selective because of that model” of care, Suykerbuyk said. “We’re looking for a long-term commitment both to the practice and to the community.”
University determined in 2010 that it “needed to have a network of primary care that trusted and fed our hospital because the future of hospital admissions is actually declining,” Davis said. “If you’re going to keep your hospital open and you’re going to grow in a time when reimbursement is dropping per unit of service, you’ve got to develop more volume. We decided we wanted to be out in the community.”
All of that will probably lead to competition among providers but that is a good thing, Sherwood said.
“The one who wins is the patient,” he said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.