County sees surge in satellite health centers

The Houston Methodist and Memorial Hermann health systems are undergoing major hospital expansions in Sugar Land. Meanwhile, in an effort to bring health care services to an expanding community, several satellite health centers have been sprouting up along Hwy. 6 between the master-planned communities of Riverstone and Sienna Plantation.

Full-service hospitals, emergency rooms, urgent care clinics and private physicians specialize in different treatments and bring varying levels of services to the communities they serve.

"There is still a 35 to 36 percent migration out to Houston for medical care, so we want to grow to meet the demand for more services that are comparable to the Texas Medical Center but close to where [residents] live," said Chris Siebenaler, CEO of Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital.

An estimated 20 percent of the county's population is living without health insurance, according to a 2013 report from the Houston–Galveston Area Council. Receiving treatment from the proper provider helps keep health care affordable, said Rep. John Zerwas, whose district encompasses the northwest portion of Fort Bend County.

"Other [areas] of equivalent size in terms of population have twice as many trauma centers," Zerwas said. "What goes to Level 1 [trauma centers] that doesn't need to go to Level 1? Some of [these patients] may be better off to get in and out quickly or never get there to begin with."

Fort Bend County is expected to reach a population of more than 675,000 by 2018 with about 40 percent expected to be 65 and older, according to the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council.

"[Health care] is changing dramatically," Zerwas said. "To have the model of health care turned a bit on its side so there is more quality and efficiency as opposed to pure productivity is very important if we are going to reign in the cost of health care."

Ongoing expansions

Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital is progressing on its $131 million expansion plan that includes a new patient tower at its campus along Hwy. 59 and Sweetwater Boulevard and a satellite emergency clinic along Hwy. 6 in Missouri City. The stand-alone ER will house 10 treatment rooms and will bring more emergency care services to Missouri City residents, Siebenaler said.

In addition, Memorial Hermann broke ground on its $93 million expansion in Sugar Land, which will add a new patient tower and medical office building.

"We are extremely proud to expand the presence of Memorial Hermann here in the heart of Fort Bend County," said Greg Haralson, president of Memorial Hermann Sugar Land. "You can see in the growth in this community how badly we need these additional beds."

Local services

Numerous health centers have cropped up along Hwy. 6 to help serve the influx of residents in Sienna Plantation and Riverstone.

Emergency clinics include Sphier Emergency Room, which opened in mid-2013; First Choice Emergency Room, which is slated to open in late 2014; and Houston Methodist Emergency Room, which is expected to open in July.

These emergency clinics focus services on a range of treatments from serious broken bones to stroke and heart attack. Satellite ERs can provide quick access to residents and typically have a shorter wait time than full-service hospitals, said Swapan Dubey, medical doctor and president and CEO of Sphier Emergency Room.

Sphier Emergency Room became the first freestanding emergency clinic in Missouri City in mid-2013. The facility, which opened its first location in Katy in 2010, opened in an effort to provide emergency medical services with a focus on customer service, said Ruth Wolf, marketing manager with Sphier. The center provides personalized services tailored to the patients, she said.

"Our goal here is to deliver good, quality medical care to the local community," Dubey said. "We feel this area is vastly growing and in need of a medical community."

All emergency rooms are required to serve every patient who comes in for treatment under state law, Dubey said. Patients covered under Medicare or Medicaid, however, are often not covered for emergency room visits.

Several urgent care clinics have opened in the area as well. When Next Level Urgent Care opened its first branch in Sugar Land last summer, the company had four full-time employees. In less than a year, the clinic has opened eight additional branches and grown to employ nearly 100 nurses, medical practitioners and clerical staff.

"Urgent care makes sense if you need treatment right away and your regular doctor is unavailable or you do not have a regular doctor," said Juliet Breeze, doctor and CEO of Next Level.

Urgent care clinics provide basic medical services after hours, and some, such as Next Level, can be a referral network for patients who need to be connected with a primary care physician.

"What we are trying to do is make health care affordable and help educate the public on when to go to an emergency room or urgent care facility," said Rafik Sandford, director of marketing with Next Level.

Urgent care clinics can treat non-life threatening illnesses and injuries. Typically, the co-pay at an urgent care facility is $25–$75.

"If you have no insurance at all, urgent care visits can be up to 10 times less than the same visit to an emergency room," Breeze said.

Serving the uninsured

Health care can be costly for those living without health insurance. An estimated 14 percent of Fort Bend County residents avoided visiting the doctor in 2013, according to the county.

"A challenge with serving the under-insured and uninsured is that county residents are unaware of the programs available," said Martha Hernandez, manager of the county's indigent health care program. "Our main focus is to assist the client with preventative and wellness care to avoid unnecessary clinical and hospital visits."

Since most urgent care clinics provide services at a flat rate, uninsured patients can receive care at a lower price. Breeze said she often advises uninsured patients to plan ahead to help keep health costs low.

"Take the time while you are not sick or injured to know where the most cost effective places are for treatment," Breeze said.

By receiving a wellness physical and lab work once a year, illnesses can often be caught before any additional treatment is required, she said.