HealthCheck

Can clinics really handle an emergency?

Monday, June 22, 2009

By now you've seen them all over Houston: new emergency centers opening their doors. But can all these clinics really handle an emergency? The answer may surprise you.

When Andre Crispin fell and cut his head open, he went to a free-standing emergency clinic.

"I went there. It was locked. It was closed," said Crispin.

Still dizzy and bleeding, he went a clinic inside a pharmacy.

"It's a first aid place and they said, 'We can't help you,'" said Crispin.

That clinic gave him the address another one: St. Luke's Community Emergency Center. It's a true, stand-alone emergency center. St. Luke's has five free-standing emergency centers.

"We're no different from St. Luke's right in the Medical Center. The only difference is we don't have a hospital above us," said Dr. Kelly Larkin, Medical Director of St. Luke's Emergency Services.

Delores Lopez-Cardenas thought she might be having a heart attack. She went to Memorial Hermann's new free-standing emergency center in the Woodlands.

"I woke up with chest pain and so I told my husband it was hurting and I wanted to come here," said Lopez-Cardenas.

The Woodlands site is the first free-standing emergency department for Memorial Hermann.

Methodist is building its first now on Kirby and 59. In all three cases, these are hospital-affiliated ERs that are regulated by the state. They have their own labs, cat scans, and ER equipment. They also take the pressure off Medical Center emergency departments.

This woman was treated for chest pain and taken by ambulance to St. Luke's in the Medical Center. That's how the hospital-affiliated emergency departments work, but when you go to an emergency clinic, you're not always getting what you think.

"Currently these facilities are not regulated by any state or federal agency," said Dr. Jeremy Finkelstein, Medical Center of Methodist Emergency Care Center.

Because there is no regulation right now, I could open a clinic and call it an emergency center. I wouldn't even have to have a doctor on staff, much less an emergency room physician.

"I think the use of the term emergency department or ER is very misleading to the public when you're talking about these facilities," said Dr. Finkelstein.

A bill regulating emergency clinics in Texas has been passed by the House and Senate. It would limit the use of the word "emergency" to clinics that have a physician and can handle true emergencies. That bill is awaiting the governor's signature.

When signed, the regulation of emergency centers would be phased in. So experts suggest you go to one before you have an emergency, and ask if they have a board-certified emergency physician present at all times.

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Christi Myers is ABC13's Healthcheck reporter

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