Sutter Health opens walk-in clinic in Petaluma for same-day care

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As you help yourself to coffee, tea or cucumber-infused “spa water” in the well-lit lounge, health and wellness information refreshes on a wall-mounted flat screen television. The comfortable cushioned seat where you sit has electrical outlets to recharge your smartphone or tablet.

A young receptionist smiles and offers you fresh fruit.

No, this is not a day spa or health club. A wall of trendy reclaimed wood bears Sutter Health’s familiar cross-shaped logo along with the words, “Sutter Walk-In Care.”

Staffed with a nurse practitioner or physician assistant, the walk-in clinic offers immediate medical treatment for common illnesses like the flu or ear infections, seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Its location in Petaluma — the Deer Creek Village shopping center on North McDowell Boulevard — is as deliberate as the furnishings and the hours.

The clinic is part of a growing health care trend to provide same-day medical services in a setting that is as convenient as getting your hair done or shopping for groceries. Sutter officials said the clinics are partially geared toward the “young invincibles,” the name given to healthy millennial consumers who have little incentive to join one of the large, local health care networks such as Sutter Health, St. Joseph Health or Kaiser Permanente.

“Our patients are becoming health care consumers — they’re choosing where they want to get their care,” said Nikki Sims, service line director of Sutter’s walk-in clinics.

Once a patient walks into the clinic, staff begin selling the benefits of joining the Sutter Health network, Sims said. “It’s a great way to get people into our system,” she said.

The clinic model is based on walk-in clinics launched in recent years in the Sacramento area, where Sutter is headquartered. Sims said many of the people being seen at those walk-in clinics resist going to a regular doctor, with 20 percent saying they would have “gone without” treatment if they weren’t able to get into the clinic.

The clinics also help keep people out of emergency departments, which local health care systems are trying to reserve for serious and life-threatening illnesses, said Dr. Jesus Saucedo, medical director Sutter’s walk-in clinics.

Saucedo, a family physician who oversees the care provided by the clinics’ nurse practitioners and physician assistants, said ailments such as urinary tract infections, upper respiratory illnesses, rashes and bladder infections can treated at walk-in clinics. The clinics can also provide health screenings, sports physicals and wellness exams, he said.

“The emergency department really should be for acute, life-threatening illnesses,” Saucedo said, adding that the walk-in clinics will be open to most commercial insurance plans, including Sutter Health Plus, the system’s own HMO plan.

Those who are not covered by insurance can pay a $129 “all-inclusive” fee for each office visit, Sutter officials said.

The Petaluma clinic, which opened in late April, is the first of six Bay Area walk-in clinics expected to open this summer and fall by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, an affiliate of Sutter Health. Other sites include San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Dublin, San Ramon and San Jose.

In a shopping plaza at East Washington and Ellis streets, Dr. Nicholas Strange closes his family practice medical offices at 5 p.m. But that’s when his traditional practice becomes an after-hours clinic that’s open until 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. On weekends and holidays, the practice runs the after-hours clinic from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Strange, whose family practice is part of the St. Joseph Medical Group, also operates a walk-in clinic every day between 8 and 9 a.m.

“It certainly is something appealing for folks who work a 9-to-5 job,” Strange said. “By increasing access to care, by extending our hours and helping with availability, I think we’re improving our care to our patients.”

St. Joseph Medical Group, which is affiliated with St. Joseph Health, operates three other after-hours clinics in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Windsor. The clinics, which are separate from St. Joseph Health’s four urgent care centers in Napa, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Windsor, are part of the health care system’s efforts to provide same-day medical service. That relieves pressure on local emergency rooms, just as urgent care centers do.

Emergency rooms, urgent care centers and walk-in clinics form the three modes of same-day medical care, with walk-in clinics providing treatment for the least severe illnesses or injuries. Strange said his after-hours clinic, which is sometimes staffed by physicians, can treat more serious conditions such as lacerations or provide joint aspiration and injections.

The competition for same-day care has also drawn in the local community health centers.

Petaluma Health Center is preparing to build a walk-in urgent care center in 8,000 square feet of space at its medical complex on North McDowell Boulevard, less than two miles south of the new Sutter walk-in clinic.

“We have a lot of patients and we need the ability to deliver same-day care,” said Pedro Toledo, chief administrative officer at Petaluma Health Center “The great thing about having the urgent care piece is we can address the urgent issues but also make sure we’re tackling the preventative issues.”

Toledo agreed that walk-in services are ideally suited for younger patients.

“They’re healthy and not getting primary care services they need,” Toledo said. “They want to be seen quickly. They don’t particularly want to establish a medical home.”

Toledo said the health center receives about 2,000 calls a day from patients.

“About 500 are people who want same-day service,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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