By Lisa Zamosky
Healthcare, it seems, is one part of our lives lacking convenience. Getting a quick doctor’s appointment, easily learning how much a medical procedure is going to cost, and receiving fast results from tests and scans has been hard to do.
That’s a big reason behind the recent explosion of retail clinics, which are located in grocery stores and pharmacies. A new study by researchers from the Rand Corporation, published in the journal Health Affairs, found that between 2007 and 2009, visits to the country’s three largest clinics — CVS Caremark’s MinuteClinic, Walgreens’ Take Care Health, and Kroger’s Little Clinic — have increased by more than 400%
The number of retail clinics in operation has also exploded. In 2007 there were 300 clinics around the country. By the end of 2010 that number grew to almost 1,200, and today about 1,400 clinics exist in the U.S., according to Convenient Care Association, a retail-clinic trade group. The Affordable Care Act, which is likely to increase the demand for primary care, is expected to spur even more growth in the coming years.
Why Go Retail?
The most common reasons for a visit to a retail clinic were for preventive care, such as getting a vaccine, a sports physical, or blood pressure screening. Retail clinics also treat minor, acute illnesses like upper respiratory or urinary tract infections, sinusitis, or allergies.
And, the study notes that in 2010, clinics made treating chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, or asthma a focus of their work with patients as well, although between 2007 and 2009, only about 1% of visits were for the treatment of a chronic illness.
Meeting Patients’ Needs
There are three primary reasons people like the retail clinic, researchers say: 1) convenience, 2) accessible hours, and 3) cost-effectiveness.
Consider the following:
- The average cost of a visit to a retail clinic is $78. This fairly reasonable price is one reason researchers cite as an appeal to people who are either uninsured (30% of patients had no coverage) or have high-deductible health plans that require them to pay large sums out-of-pocket before insurance picks up the bill
- Price transparency is also a draw. Unlike your doctor’s office, the cost of various medical services and procedures are usually listed on the wall as you walk through the door. No billing surprises.
- The locations of the clinics are convenient. You can get a flu shot while you’re in CVS picking up shampoo and toothpaste
- Retail clinics are typically open after your doctor’s office has closed. In fact, more than 44% of visits took place at times when physician offices are not open, researchers found.
- Most patients visiting a retail clinic between 2007 and 2009 – nearly 65% – did not have a relationship with a primary care physician, so offering these patients quick and easy access to care for minor health problems is attractive.
The researchers comment that they’ll be interested to see how retail clinics are impacted by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Since they have thus far predominantly appealed to people without insurance or without a relationship to a primary care doctor, new access to insurance coverage under the law may send more people to the doctor’s office, rather than the grocery store for care. Time will tell.
What do you think? Are retail medical clinics a good idea? Have you ever used one? If so, how was your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.