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MUSC has announced an affiliation with Doctors Care, the largest network of express clinics in the region. File/Staff 

The Medical University of South Carolina is expanding its urgent care offerings under an affiliation with the largest network of express clinics in the region.

MUSC on Tuesday announced a new partnership with Doctors Care, a company founded in Columbia in 1981.

The deal applies to 10 Doctors Care outposts in the Charleston region and nine along the Grand Strand market, according to a written statement. 

No money is changing hands between the providers, and no staffing changes are planned, though MUSC signage will be visible at the urgent care sites. 

The biggest difference will be in the referral network. Dr. Terrence Steyer, chair of MUSC's Department of Family Medicine, said Doctors Care patients who need a specialist and don't voice a preference will be sent to MUSC.

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Care Now Urgent Care opened in 2017 under a partnership with Trident Health. Hospital systems are seeking to nudge patients out of emergency rooms and into lower-cost clinics. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Steyer noted that MUSC offers virtual visits around the clock for common health ailments.

"Some patients just prefer to see a provider and talk about their conditions," he said.

Increasingly, hospital systems have sought to encourage the use of after-hours medical services, mainly to keep patients from visiting emergency rooms for issues that can be handled just as effectively but more cheaply at a clinic.

Urgent care centers also help secure referrals by sending patients to a hospital's other offices for treatment once their immediate needs are handled. 

Doctors Care's parent company is UCI Medical Affiliates, which in turn is owned by BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, the largest private health insurer in the state.

"This affiliation just makes good sense because it’s all about additional choices for appropriate care," UCI spokeswoman Jill Armbruster said in a statement. "Patients want more avenues for appropriate care options, and our vast and established network of urgent cares delivers on that need."

Doctors Care is one of a handful of urgent care providers in the area. Five CVS pharmacies in the region offer Minute Clinics, and Walgreens clinics are spread across the Midlands.

In late 2017, Trident Health launched a partnership with CareNow, a Texas company. Two of the clinics have opened in North Charleston and Goose Creek. 

Roper St. Francis owns the largest network of express clinics among the area hospital systems, with four under its umbrella

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MUSC, meanwhile, has fewer quick-visit options for its patients. Its Rapid Access Clinic is geared toward university employees and their families. It also has three after-hours clinics in Mount Pleasant, North Charleston and Summerville for pediatric patients.

Steyer said demand for appointments with MUSC's primary care experts is already high and growing along with the area's population. Adding more urgent care options might relieve some of the pressure without the hospital system having to build or buy its own clinics.

"We didn’t really have an appropriate infrastructure ourselves," Steyer said. 

He stressed that using an urgent care clinic isn't a replacement for a relationship with a primary care physician. The centers are intended to treat immediate needs that don't rise to a life-threatening emergency.

Doctors Care accepts most major insurance plans, and its clinics are open until 8 p.m. on weeknights. Its website gives patients the option to check in online and see how long they can expect to wait.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reinforce that Doctors Care patients will have first choice in which provider they are referred to for any needed specialty care.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.