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Quality Care Given Quickly
July 16, 2007
Ft. Myers News-Press Front Page July 16, 2007: At its worst last winter, the wait time for emergency-room care in Lee County stretched to eight hours.
Dr. Larry Hobbs, who directs emergency medicine at Southwest Florida Regional Medical center, knew there had to be a better way to deliver care. Many of the patients he saw didn't need an emergency room at all.
Hobbs and his three partners seized on a golden business opportunity and a chance to offer non-emergency patients an alternative to long ER waits.
A year ago, they opened the Urgent Care Center of Southwest Florida in Estero.
On Thursday, the clinic's one year anniversary, the doctors will open a second one in Cape Coral. Hobbs said he eventually would like to operate five of them.
“The ERs are overused,” Hobbs said. “I think people have to understand that the emergency rooms are for emergencies.”
The Estero clinic features nine exam rooms, a procedure room, a laboratory, a supply of commonly prescribed medicines and a digital X-ray machine.
There's also an ambulance bay in case paramedics have to whisk away a patient who really does belong in the hospital.
Nationally, the average wait time for an emergency room patient is four hours, Hobbs said.
“Here, we get people in and out within an hour,” he said.
Hobbs, in fact, said he's done everything possible to distance the clinic from the emergency room experience.
Both centers feature an Asian design theme with waterfall fountains and bamboo-like flooring and soft lights.
“The idea is to give a calming effect,” he said.
Erin Lebreche, who lives in the nearby Three Oaks community, has visited twice - once because her son needed an immediate physical for a sports tryout and once because her daughter sprained an ankle.
“If they can do the same thing as an emergency room, what an ideal setting” Labreche said.
Yet, she recently had to take her mother to an emergency room because there were o urgent-care centers hear her mother's home.
“It was an all-day ordeal,” Labreche said.
What's different from other urgent care centers is the staffing, Hobbs said. Patients will be seen by emergency-room-trained doctors, nurses and related clinicians. For those needing follow-up care, Hobbs said he and his partners use their connections to get them appointments with hard-to-find and overscheduled specialists.
Hospital officials are often wary of new doctor-owned businesses because they can pull insured patients away from the hospital and leave behind the uninsured.
But in this case, Lee Memorial Health System welcomes Hobbs' efforts, said Dr. D.B. Rebsamen, the chief medical officer for ambulatory and strategic services.
“I think it's a good service,” said Rebsamen.
So far, the few urgent-care centers in Lee haven't done much to relieve the ER traffic, he said. The county will need a lot more clinics before the wait times really drop.
“The fact is the community is growing so much, I think everybody is going to be full,” Rebsamen said.
Because of the demand, Lee Memorial is developing three more Lee Convenient Care Centers in Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, and South Fort Myers.
Rebsamen said the urgent-care centers make sense, too, for people who are turning to lower-premium but higher deductible insurance plans. Urgent care centers are a relatively inexpensive way to get medical care. Hobbs said his center charges about $128 for a visit. The same patient in the ER would be billed $300 for the doctor's services alone, Hobbs said.
Hobbs hopes, too, that his urgent care philosophy can counter the retail medical clinics popping up in pharmacies and big-box stores. Florida laws dissuade the opening of such clinics because a physician is required to oversee nurse practitioners. But the companies that run retail clinics are fighting hard to gain a foothold in the state, said Hobbs, who tracks state and national issues as the president of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians.
“Those are not acceptable,” said Hobbs. “This is appropriate medical care.”