By Matt Masterson Freeman Staff

WAUKESHA With access to more health information than ever before, medical patients have begun questioning ever-rising medical costs while seeking out cheaper, more individualized treatment centers, leading to a booming industry of urgent care and private health facilities springing up both locally and across the nation.

Informed consumers are now seeking out convenience and more availability in addition to affordable treatment in ways never before seen, leading to a new age of medicine that allows patients to chat with doctors online, fill out health risk assessments created by medical professionals with the click of a mouse and save thousands by ditching hospitals for smaller, specialized health centers.

Next month, the area’s first Smart Choice MRI center will open on Springdale Road. Earlier this year, MinuteClinic” a chain of walkin medical clinics at CVS stores” opened its first four Wisconsin locations, including one in Waukesha and another in Menomonee Falls. All of these join the dozen or more urgent care and non-hospital facilities already spread out across the county.

A new generation of patients

Smart Choice MRI CEO Rick Anderson believes the health care field is already different from what it was just 12 months ago. His company offers MRI services at a $600 flat rate at nearly $2,000 below the average cost for the same procedure according to NerdWallet Health, a personal finance site. He said approximately 42 percent of people in Wisconsin have so-called a high deductible health plan which require them to pay up to the first $3,000 out of pocket for any health-related costs before their insurance kicks in.

Unlike previous generations that took doctors at their word, Anderson believes people these days are more skeptical and more questioning of their health care providers. This has led, he said, to the creation of a more attuned, sharper-educated consumer who digs for answers before jumping into treatment. “I think people are taking control of their health care spending, and therefore their health care decisions, and consumerism has taken hold,” he said. “People are saying, I want to know your quality rating, I want to know if you can get me in on a Saturday at 7 a.m., I heard so-and-so will do this for less, will you

too? “We just didn’t think that way, even five years ago.” One way of rectifying this sense of skepticism is moving towards a more team based model of health care, said ProHealthCare Marketing Director Susen Rasmussen. “Part of what we are trying to do, she said, “is get individuals attached to a doctor to help them establish relationships earlier and to be much more aware of their health.”

Health care in the digital age

While there is no shortage of health-related information online, ProHealth Care has begun offering a series of free online tools that ask patients a series of questions to determine their risk for various conditions, including heart disease, cancer or strokes.

Rasmussen said the amount of information available on the Internet can be overwhelming, and she hopes the tests “which were unveiled last week” help to educate individuals about health risks as they age, while also giving them solid information on how to improve their health. “It fits nicely with our brand campaign that launched about 18 months ago, which is all about treating

individuals with the respect they deserve,” Rasmussen said. “Part of treating an individual with respect in terms of health care is providing them with all the tools they need to make good health care decisions.”

Patients can currently take health assessments for 10 different conditions, but she believes more could be on the way in areas such as behavioral health, including stress and anxiety issues. Another health care provider utilizing the world wide Web to better reach its patients is Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield, which earlier this month introduced online doctor’s visits to Medicare Advantage plans in Wisconsin.

Michael Carson, Medicare president of Anthem’s east region, said the program “which allows patients to talk with a board-certified doctor on a secure connection over the Internet using a smartphone, tablet or computer” is especially useful for an aging population that has become more comfortable with using technology. “This is a great tool for those who are Internet savvy to use to access health care on evenings and weekends when their primary care physician might not be available,” he said. “It is also valuable for people living in rural areas, those busy Boomers who travel… and those who may have mobility issues.” A shorter wait? Online visits can also help unclog busy hospital waiting rooms, which has been an unexpected advantage from the growth of urgent care facilities.

In markets such as Chicago, where the facilities have taken a stronger foothold, Anderson said the large health systems there were initially concerned. That changed once they realized people going in for a cold or a routine test could go to these clinics instead, and allow those with serious illnesses to be handled more quickly at a hospital. Thanks in part to that, companies like Smart Choice “which is planning to open four more Midwest locations in 2015 ” and MinuteClinic, which has locations in 31 states and continues to expand, are able to not only survive, but thrive. “They actually embraced the urgent care clinics and said fine, if you are going to get a strep test, go ahead, go there,” Anderson said regarding hospitals. “I think any competitor coming into a market scares people, but when they realize it is probably best for the market overall, in the case of some of the ones in Chicago that I know of, they have really embraced it.”