The Popularity of In-Store Medical Clinics

November 21, 2012
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We have followed the progress of Walgreens as the drugstore chain integrates health clinics into its stores as one example of what appears to be a growing trend throughout the drugstore industry. But it’s still not clear how these clinics will fit into the mix of healthcare offerings.

We have followed the progress of Walgreens as the drugstore chain integrates health clinics into its stores as one example of what appears to be a growing trend throughout the drugstore industry. But it’s still not clear how these clinics will fit into the mix of healthcare offerings.

Walgreens now has 356 in-store clinics, and other drugstore chains are more than catching up: CVS has about 588 CVS “MinuteClinics,” and Wal-Mart includes 143 clinics across some of its stores nationwide. The consulting firm Merchant Medicine estimates that there are almost 1,400 in-store health clinics in the United States.

Recently, National Public Radio and Truven Health Analytics conducted a poll of consumers, and found that:

  • Two-thirds of people would try an in-store clinic, while about half said they were aware of a clinic near them.
  • Eighty percent of people who tried a clinic were happy with the experience.
  • Most consumers went to a clinic to treat a cold or minor illness, or to receive an immunization.

Why are these clinics popular? The reasons could be a warning shot to physicians and other providers. Although most people who used the clinics also had “regular” doctors, the consumers reported that the clinics were cheaper, more accessible than a doctor’s office, and provided the “perceived” same quality care as that received from a physician.

While Rand Corp. and other studies found that clinics indeed are 80 percent cheaper than an emergency room and half the price of a doctor’s office visit, the clinics could cause headaches for doctors and patients:

  • Patients who try clinics are less likely to visit a doctor the next time they get sick. Since clinics don’t have patient records or a regularly scheduled provider, there’s no provider-patient relationship.
  • Clinics aren’t staffed by doctors—usually a nurse practitioner or physician assistant sees customers. Serious or chronic problems could easily be overlooked.
  • Consistency could become a problem—some in-store clinics could over-prescribe drugs, and in extreme cases, certain free-standing clinics were found to be “pill mills” in disguise, illegally selling narcotics and painkillers.

There’s no doubt that the consumer revolution in healthcare is demanding more access at a more reasonable cost, but are in-store clinics the solution? Right now, less than one percent of outpatient care is handled through such facilities. But as they grow, there will have to be a good, secure fit within the overall healthcare delivery system.

What do you think: Do in-store clinics have a rightful place in healthcare delivery? Or are they undermining physicians and other providers, and possibly putting patients at risk? What other solutions incorporate quality care, accessibility and low cost?

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