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Care Package

It’s there when you need it

by Cindy Bernhardt

Dr. Timothy FitzgeraldOsteopathic physician Timothy Fitzgerald and his wife, Nancy, bought Champlain Valley Urgent Care and Occupational Health in South Burlington in 2002, when the clinic’s former owner (and their employer) decided to close it.

Champlain Valley Urgent Care and Occupational Health (CVUC) is like money stashed in a piggy bank. It’s good to know it’s there if and when you need it 

The clinic specializes in immediate care for illnesses and injury as well as serving employees and businesses requiring occupational medicine expertise.

Explains clinic owner and physician Timothy Fitzgerald, DO, “Urgent care facilities like us help people who are injured but don’t require emergency room treatment, and sick patients who aren’t able to get in to see their doctor right away. It’s a much more effective and efficient way to handle a lot of health care issues.”

Tim, an osteopathic physician who is board-certified in urgent care and family practice medicine, and his wife, Nancy, have owned and operated CVUC since 2002. The walk-in clinic, open seven days a week, is located on Fayette Drive off Shelburne Road in South Burlington. He is the facility’s medical director and a practicing physician there. Nancy, a registered dietitian, helps manage the business.

The couple met when their paths literally crossed in Arizona in 1990, where they happened to be hiking the same trail. Recounts Nancy, “I’d fallen and hurt myself and Tim stopped to help.” Or, as Tim likes to joke, “She fell for me.” 

At the time, Tim, a New Hampshire native, was practicing urgent care medicine in Scottsdale, where Nancy lived. They married in 1995.

Tim had spent two years as an undergrad at St. Michael’s College and two summers at the University of Vermont. He holds a bachelor of science in biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire, and received his doctor of osteopathy from the University of New England in Maine. 

After graduating, seeking a change of pace and scenery, he followed his mother and sister, who had moved to Arizona. An accomplished painter and sculptor who minored in fine arts at UNH, Tim pursued his artistic passion by taking courses at the Scottsdale Art School while practicing medicine in true right brain/left brain style. 

A culinary school graduate, Nancy worked as a restaurant chef for a number of years. When a chronic back injury forced her off her feet, she returned to school, graduating from Northern Arizona University as a registered dietitian.

While working at a HealthSouth urgent care clinic in Scottsdale, Tim learned of a physician opening at the firm’s South Burlington facility. Tim leapt at the chance to return north, while, Nancy jokes, she left Arizona “kicking and screaming. Now you’d have to drag me away from here!” They moved to Vermont in 1999.

Three years later, U.S. Healthworks, which had bought the South Burlington practice, decided to close the facility. The clinic was foundering due to the combined effects of minimal advertising and a location — tucked in the back of Lakewood Commons — lacking visibility. “We only had about 10 patients a day,” Tim recalls.

 The closing proved a turning point. “We had the carpet pulled out from under us,” he says. “It was either move on and work for someone else or try this ourselves.” The Fitzgeralds decided to buy the business in 2002 and moved to their current location within a year. 

The more visible location with easier access contributed to the clinic’s fivefold growth in its first five years. An average day now sees 50 patients visit the facility.

Tim describes the clinic’s core business as split 50/50 between work-related occupational medicine and urgent care. 

The urgent care half of the business, Tim notes, requires “educating people on the concept of what we’re about and the niche we fill.” He cites “reflex thinking” as the driver behind many ER visits. 

U.S. emergency care is in crisis mode, Tim says. “There’s a glut of people going to ERs, bogging things down and driving costs up. Emergency rooms should be strictly for life-threatening emergencies. 

“If someone sprains their ankle, they automatically think they need an ER visit. But they don’t, and that’s where we can help. We give people another choice in health care.” 

Services include minor surgical procedures, laceration repairs, X-ray facilities, and an in-house lab. 

Cost savings realized from bypassing the ER are significant for the patient, employer, insurance company, and especially for those without health care coverage, says Tim. “ERs can charge more for their services than primary care doctors and UC facilities. Our goal is to keep costs down.”

An average office visit at CVUC for those without insurance costs around $85, depending on the problem. “Walking in to the ER just to say ‘hi’ is going to run between $200 to $300,” he notes.

Ashley CollinsServices include minor surgical procedures, laceration repairs, X-ray facilities, and an in-house lab. Ashley Collins is the X-ray technician.

“Most insurance companies prefer that patients use an urgent care facility,” he continues. “Some refer patients to us and list us as a UC service for those not able to see their family doctors.”

The occupational medicine side of the business focuses on treating as well as preventing work-related injuries.

“We work with employers to help find ways an injured employee can keep earning income, stay on the job, and continue to be productive,” Tim says. 

He tours employers’ facilities to understand the nature of the work performed and machines used to determine possible types of injuries. Based on that information, he’s able to recommend preventive safety measures and job modifications to help injured employees return to work. 

According to Steve Myers, a former client and now owner of Catamount Worksite Safety Services, “A lot of doctors ignore employers’ return-to-work programs and simply take an employee out of work.” That approach, he says, decreases employee morale while increasing companies’ insurance premiums. 

“Tim works with employers to find jobs within an employee’s restrictions to keep them in the workplace.”

Kim Underhill, a specialist in human resources at Rhino Foods, concurs, noting that Tim’s familiarity with her company’s production facility means he’s “better equipped to understand how to get employees back working in some capacity.” 

Area firms that regularly use the clinic’s capabilities include S.D. Ireland, UPS, S.T. Griswold, the Vermont Air Guard Fire Department, and the city of Burlington.

Other services provided under the CVUC umbrella encompass pre-placement, work-required and school/sports physicals, vaccine services, and evaluation and treatment of sports-related and common orthopedic problems. The clinic also sees many out-of-state visitors experiencing medical issues while traveling.

The clinic’s staff of 21, in addition to Tim, includes two other part-time physicians, a physician’s assistant, a nurse practitioner, and a number of other medical assistants. The clinic has four general exam rooms, a trauma room, and two rooms for hearing and vision tests. Tim also serves as medical review officer for the physician component of company drug screenings.

While a walk-in clinic offers patients easy access, it can also prove a challenge, Tim says. “We try to keep waiting times to a minimum, but you never know what’s coming in. It could be something simple that takes five minutes or a more complex situation. Managing the facility’s pace and people’s frustrations when there are waiting times can be tough.” 

It’s the variety and challenge of urgent care that appeals to Tim. “I like the variability, seeing different things all the time, and the balance between occupational and urgent care. It’s nice to get a mix of patients and see kids as well as older people.”

Tim has found that, in addition to his physician duties and overseeing the clinic’s day-to-day operations, he’s enjoyed his newfound role as businessman.

“I’m a creative person and I’ve really enjoyed developing and marketing the business more than I thought I would,” he says. “It’s an aspect I want to focus on more in the future.” He has co-produced and written two TV commercials for the clinic and created most of its print ads. 

Nancy’s role in the business has also evolved. During their early years of ownership, Nancy’s work as a pharmaceutical rep provided the couple’s only income. She then began helping out at the clinic as a part-time receptionist, began assuming additional responsibilities, and eventually quit her rep job. 

“When we bought the business, we didn’t know anything about billing or insurance,” she says. “I took that on because that’s where our income was coming from.” She learned as she went and jokes that she earned herself a “doctorate of billing.” 

Although her role eventually expanded into office manager, Nancy has shed some of those duties and is tapping into her dietitian background by developing a wellness program component for the business. “One of my passions is nutrition,” she says. “Setting up wellness programs at employers’ worksites will help take the business to a different level.”

Nancy Fitzgerald and Andrew ConteThe clinic’s co-owner Nancy Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian, jokes that she earned herself a “doctorate of billing” in the early years. Andrew Conte, the office manager, has been with the Fitzgeralds since the beginning.

Looking ahead, Tim and Nancy are exploring expanding within the next year or so to a second facility, in Williston, which would offer physical therapy in addition to urgent care.

 The couple notes that joint ownership of the clinic has its pluses and minuses for them as a couple. “We try to be careful about not bringing work home because that can be stressful,” Tim says. “The benefit is we’ve had a common goal that’s brought us together and strengthened our relationship.”

“We didn’t have a goal to have our own practice, but we’re glad we took the business over,” he reflects. “Having autonomy and making our own decisions is demanding and challenging but rewarding. ”

These days, the Fitzgeralds, who live in Jericho with their three Labrador-mix dogs, are experiencing the joys of home renovation. Once completed, the refurbishment will provide Nancy — who loves to cook — with her “dream kitchen” and allow Tim to reclaim Nancy’s current home office as studio space for his art. 

In keeping with his artistic bent, Tim says developing the clinic’s business is “just like a painting: We’re creating a vision and trying to get it across to people.” •

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