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Allegheny Health Network to schedule same-day doctors' appointments

| Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, 7:33 a.m.
Tribune-Review
Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh's North Side

Allegheny Health Network announced Thursday that it will offer same-day doctors' visits for people who call in the morning, a change likely aimed at distinguishing the hospital system from competitors amid trends toward more convenience in health care.

The hospital will schedule afternoon appointments with primary care doctors and specialists for people who call before 11 a.m., according to the announcement.

“I don't think there is anything more frustrating for someone who has a medical need, or perceived need, than they have to wait days or weeks to be seen,” said Dr. Elie Aoun, AHN's medical director for clinical access.

Aoun said AHN's wait times have varied across specialties but range from several days to several weeks.

“We're trying to provide health care that fits people's real lives,” Aoun said. “If they have issues, they shouldn't have to wait.”

The promise of same-day visits also could help the hospital system's bottom line, said Rob Rosenberg, president of Chicago-based Springboard Brand & Creative Strategy, a communications firm that works with health systems.

“You need to fill the physician offices, and it's a great service to begin to engage consumers right away and not let them go elsewhere,” Rosenberg said. “If they need a doctor and they're in the market, so to speak, the ability to get them in the same day is probably a good thing, probably a unique advantage that they can offer.”

Rosenberg said the change could affect patient satisfaction scores, which are tied to Medicare reimbursements under the federal Affordable Care Act. The change could help AHN reduce emergency room wait times by funneling patients with less-severe illnesses to primary settings. Emergency room wait times are a driver of patient complaints for nearly every hospital, he said.

The seven-hospital system owned by Highmark Health reported lower-than-expected patient volumes in its last quarterly financial statement, published in November, and reported a $34 million operating loss over the first three quarters of the year.

AHN President and CEO Cynthia Hundorfean moved to the hospital system from Cleveland Clinic, which offers same-day appointments, according to its website.

While other local health systems don't promise same-day visits, representatives said they have taken steps to make it easier to see their doctors. Rival hospital system UPMC wasted no time in criticizing AHN's approach.

“When a patient truly needs immediate care, we have the right resources in place to appropriately provide that care, including urgent care-type appointments in many specialties,” spokeswoman Susan Manko said in an emailed statement. “Our ability to meet the immediate needs of our patients include ‘after hours' and ‘walk-in' appointments in many of our clinics, 10 urgent care centers and seven pediatric express care centers located throughout the region, and innovative digital activities.”

At Westmoreland County-based Excela Health, primary care doctors block out time each day to see patients with acute health needs, spokeswoman Robin Jennings said.

The system added weekend primary care hours at Latrobe Hospital in October and plans to offer them in February at Excela Square at Norwin. The system also offers evening visits, she said.

The system is taking steps to integrate primary and specialty care, but primary care visits are usually the most important — following emergency room visits — in acute health situations, she said.

Allegheny Health Network started testing the same-day visit program for primary care doctors in October.

Aoun said he expects the program will have medical benefits in addition to being more convenient.

“The sooner you address a clinical issue, that will translate into better clinical outcomes,” he said.

The same-day offer applies to people with private insurance, Medicaid and Medicare, he said, but people should check to make sure their insurers don't require special authorizations for specialist visits.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or wventeicher@tribweb.com.

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