Ariela Lopez, Contributing Photographer

American Family Care opened an urgent care clinic in downtown New Haven in September, part of a broader statewide shift away from emergency room visits toward urgent care.

The clinic, located in the same plaza complex as the Stop & Shop off of Elm Street, is open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. One of about 310 AFC Urgent Care clinics around the country, the New Haven clinic is a part of the six-clinic southern Connecticut franchise owned and operated by emergency medicine physician Steven Heffer. 

According to the franchise’s Regional Director of Operations Leah Dodyk, Heffer opens a new AFC clinic every two years. While Heffer had sought originally to expand the franchise more south, closer to Westport, Dodyk said he began looking at New Haven real estate instead at a realtor’s suggestion.

“New Haven is an up-and-coming, very vibrant community, it really needs more urgent care,” Dodyk said. “Dr. Heffer went with this realtor, and they showed him a couple of spots, and the one he chose, which is the one we’re in now on Elm Street, is just the perfect location for an urgent care.”

Dodyk said that the location is ideal because it shares a plaza with other frequented storefronts — the Stop & Shop, a gas station and a laundromat — and is adjacent to a large parking lot. The office’s area of around 4,000 square feet also exceeds the minimum required size for an urgent care clinic, which is about 3,000 square feet, Dodyk said. New Haven was chosen as the site for a new office in November 2022, and, Dodyk said, Heffer signed the lease for the Elm Street office in February.

Alex Guzhnay ’24, the former alder representing Ward 1 chairing the Board of Alders’ Health and Human Services Committee, shared Dodyk’s enthusiasm for the clinic’s location.

“They opened up in a great spot,” Guzhnay said. “It has a lot of traffic and people that come, kids, families. And it’s in a neighborhood with a school kind of close to it too.”

In the months following the signing of the lease, the AFC team got to work designing the layout of the space, according to Dodyk. Construction on the office began in April, she added.

Typically, an AFC clinic is staffed by a team of 15, with each employee working rotating three-day shifts. The clinics are staffed by six or seven employees at any given time, including a non-clinical front desk attendant, a licensed practical nurse and one medical “provider” — a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant. The New Haven clinic is currently staffed by around four to five employees each day, including the provider, Dodyk said. A medical doctor serves as the provider on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Being a new location, we don’t need to be that heavily staffed yet because we’re not seeing that kind of patient volume yet,” Dodyk said.

Dodyk said that her team thought it was important to staff the clinic with employees “rooted in the community.” A majority of the clinic’s staff are from the New Haven area, she said. The staff were hired in June and July, months before the clinic’s opening, and were trained at other AFC Urgent Care locations in Shelton, Trumbull and Fairfield, Dodyk said. 

While most AFC clinics will see between 40 and 50 patients each day, the New Haven clinic is currently seeing around fifteen to seventeen patients each day, Dodyk estimated. She described the number as “unbelievable” for a location so new.

AFC Urgent Care’s New Haven clinic opened amid an increase in urgent care clinic popularity in the region. Another for-profit clinic franchise, DOCS Urgent Care and Primary Care, opened a clinic on Chapel Street by the New Haven Green last year. Non-profit health systems like Yale New Haven Health and Hartford HealthCare have also begun opening urgent care clinics across Connecticut.

The increase in urgent care facilities corresponds with a decrease in emergency room visits. Connecticut’s Office of Health Strategy reported that emergency room visits dropped by 15 percent between 2016 and 2021. In the same period, the report said, “avoidable” visits for minor ailments dropped by seven percent.

Dodyk said she believes that expanding urgent care facilities has a positive effect on healthcare access.

“I honestly believe you can never have too many urgent cares, being that people have such a hard time getting appointments with their regular providers or doctors or other specialists,” she said.

Urgent care centers looking to open in Connecticut must be approved by the state government. During the recent proliferation of urgent care clinics, some state lawmakers have expressed a desire to increase regulations on clinics and investigate their effect on public health systems. 

Although the New Haven Health Department is not directly involved in licensing or opening urgent care centers in the city, the department’s Director of Health Maritza Bond expressed support for AFC Urgent Care’s presence.

“Urgent care centers like AFC in the Dixwell neighborhood are an important resource for our community,” Bond wrote. “They provide more accessible and lower-cost healthcare services for residents, helping to keep them out of higher cost emergency rooms for routine care.”  

Bond pointed to the clinic’s extensive hours and walk-in appointment system as two features that make the clinic particularly accessible to working people who might otherwise have to take time off of work to seek medical attention.

New Haven’s AFC Urgent Care is located at 527 Elm St.

Ariela Lopez covers City Hall and City Politics. Originally from New York City, she is a first-year in Branford College.