Wednesday, July 17, 2024


Before choosing its Cambridge location, CareWell Urgent Care opened offices only in suburbs. Lexington has been the closest CareWell office. (Photo: CareWell Urgent Care)

Before choosing its Cambridge location, CareWell Urgent Care opened offices only in suburbs. Lexington has been the closest CareWell office. (Photo: CareWell Urgent Care)

The city’s first freestanding urgent care clinic, for people who might need an X-ray for a suspected fracture right away but don’t have life-threatening conditions meriting an emergency room visit, plans to open next month in Inman Square.

Carewell Urgent Care, which has established eight centers in Massachusetts since 2012, will open an office at 1400 Cambridge St. on April 24, spokeswoman Andrea LePain said. Carewell, like most other urgent care centers in the burgeoning industry, has put most of its offices in suburban towns; Cambridge will be its first urban venture.

Unlike retail-based medical ventures such as CVS Minute Clinics, which provide care for minor problems and are staffed with nurses or nurse-practitioners, many urgent care centers, including Carewell, have physicians on site and can perform X-rays and lab work. Carewell’s centers are open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Claims not to compete

Carewell and other urgent care centers market themselves to patients as a way to avoid long waits in emergency rooms, which typically give top priority to people with chest pains and other potential and actual life-threatening conditions. As many primary care doctors close their offices at night and on weekends, patients with needs that can’t wait often end up in the emergency room when they don’t really need emergency care.

Despite the overlap with hospitals and doctors, urgent care centers say they don’t compete with other providers. “We collaborate with doctors and hospitals,” LePain said. Carewell recently signed an affiliation agreement with Burlington-based Lahey Health, allowing the two organizations to refer patients to each other. The company is talking to other providers about possible alliances, LePain said. She declined to name any.

The new Cambridge center will be directly across the street from Cambridge Family Health, a primary care practice owned by financially ailing Cambridge Health Alliance. Carewell chose the location for business reasons only, including its “high traffic” and “retail-centric” character, LePain said.

Tufts, Blue Cross relationships

Some insurers and health care observers have praised the move toward urgent care as a way to avoid inappropriate use of expensive emergency rooms, and Carewell has more than supportive words from health insurers: two major Massachusetts insurers, Blue Cross and Tufts Health Plan, have invested in the private company.

Tufts spokeswoman Sonya Hagopian declined to say how much Tufts has put into Carewell, but did say that most of Carewell’s backing has come from venture capital companies. A Blue Cross spokeswoman returned a telephone call but didn’t provide information before deadline. The chief financial officers of both insurers sit on Carewell’s board of directors.

In addition to owning a piece of Carewell, Tufts and Blue Cross would have to negotiate contracts for payment for medical care with the urgent care company. Hagopian said Carewell does not get special treatment.

“The folks doing the contracting would make sure they are approaching it as they would with any provider,” she said. The office of Attorney General Martha Coakley, which oversees competition in the health care industry, declined to comment, spokesman Grant Wood said.

Tufts had only one contract with an urgent care physician in 2011; it now has more than 30, Hagopian said. “Our focus is to make sure our members get the right care at the right time,” she said.

Although Carewell plans to open April 24, the company doesn’t yet have the required licenses from the state to establish a medical clinic. Dave Kibbe, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health, said the company has filed architectural plans, which are under review.  The state must also approve Carewell’s operational plan and visit the site. As of this week, Carewell hadn’t filed an application for a license to operate, Kibbe said.