VCA launches urgent care hospitals

Seventeen planned to open next year after first clinic in Los Angeles

Updated September 21, 2022

One of the largest chains of veterinary hospitals is now entering the urgent care space.

VCA Animal Hospitals Urgent Care builds on VCA’s network of primary, emergency, and specialty animal hospitals. The first urgent care clinic opened in August in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mar Vista. The company plans to build and open 17 locations across seven markets next year, including in Arizona, Southern California, Colorado, and Texas. Then there are plans to further expand to 100 locations, covering all major U.S. markets. This is the first time the company has built a new line of hospitals from the ground up, according to an Aug. 22 announcement.

VCA’s urgent care locations will be focused on non–life-threatening issues that should be addressed on the same or next day.

The urgent care clinics are intentionally designed without a front desk or phones. Client service representatives help clients get comfortable and checked in via mobile device.

Garrett Lewis, chief operating officer for VCA, told AVMA News that the move to add urgent care service was, in part, “to help address the critical capacity issues facing our field,” but also to help provide greater access to care.

VCA hospitals saw a record 4.5 million unique visits last year across its hospitals–more than in any of the prior four years. Lewis said wait times for appointments had increased by about two weeks at the peak during the pandemic. That measure has come down slightly by about three to four days but is not yet at pre-pandemic levels.

VCA had looked at creating urgent care clinics prior to the pandemic but accelerated its plans when more general practice hospitals started referring cases to the emergency room.

“In March 2020, we saw our ER hospitals were slammed, and many weren’t emergencies. Clients were trying to be seen by their doctor and couldn’t get in,” Lewis said, and that trend only continued. “We knew we had to come up with a better solution.”

In early 2021, VCA started planning for what an urgent care facility could look like. Features include free teletriage by a team of on-call credentialed veterinary technicians employed by the company who can help assess a pet’s condition, advising whether a trip to urgent care or the emergency room is needed. The virtual teletriage team has access to VCA clinics’ practice management systems, so all chat notes are connected to any VCA patient’s file so the patient’s general practice or specialty team can read them, often within minutes of the chat taking place.

On average, the virtual teletriage team has 13,000 to 14,000 teletriage chats each month. Of those chats, the company sees about 25% that do not require an in-office visit, and only about 17% are referred on to ER on a monthly basis, according to data provided by the company.

Relying on the virtual teletriage team and in-house call center is intended to free up urgent care clinics’ customer service representatives from answering client calls.

For customer service representatives generally, “the experience they had for much of the pandemic is they were on the phone all day,” Lewis said. “We wanted to see how do we take away that part and let them do what they do best, which is welcome clients and set them up for success in their visit.”

Clients are directed to go to the urgent care clinic’s website to schedule an appointment and see how long wait times are. Then the clients are notified via text when it’s time to come to the clinic to avoid having them wait in the hospital, Lewis said.

Treatment area
VCA Animal Hospitals Urgent Care–Mar Vista opened in August. VCA plans to build and open seven more urgent care locations next year around the U.S. and further expand to 100 locations, covering all major U.S. markets.

“Clients love that there is a solution, where they had to wait weeks to see their vets,” Lewis said. “It’s also great for doctors because we’ve really focused on this has to be a sustainable profession for our veterinary care team members. We focus on support staff so that the doctor is fully leveraged so the doctor can get out on time.”

The new urgent care clinic’s hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Lewis said the clinic has proven to be a good fit for veterinarians who don’t want the overnight shifts of the emergency room but want to see urgent cases.

VCA, which formerly stood for Veterinary Centers of America, started out in 1986 when three former executives of health care companies decided to acquire veterinary hospitals. VCA bought its first independently owned hospital in 1987 in Los Angeles, and that hospital became the flagship unit.

Five years ago, Mars Inc. acquired VCA in a transaction valued at approximately $9.1 billion. The chain now has 35,000 employees, including 7,000 veterinarians, 430 of whom are board-certified specialists; nearly 4,000 credentialed technicians; and over 10,000 veterinary assistants. VCA currently operates more than 1,000 hospitals across 46 states and five Canadian provinces.

Correction: A previous version of this article had the incorrect number of locations where VCA plans to build.