Grocery stores have changed how we receive routine care

September 1, 2006

One of the things I love about living in the suburbs is the close proximity of retail when I need to get my errands done. In a three-mile stretch, I can eat lunch, hit the ATM, buy a gift, fill up my gas tank and replenish my groceries. At the grocery store, I can buy stamps and drop off my dry cleaning, too.

One of the things I love about living in the suburbs is the close proximity of retail when I need to get my errands done. In a three-mile stretch, I can eat lunch, hit the ATM, buy a gift, fill up my gas tank and replenish my groceries. At the grocery store, I can buy stamps and drop off my dry cleaning, too.

Across the country, more and more everyday stores are entering into agreements to provide health services through a new breed of walk-in retail clinics. Among the largest are MinuteClinic, RediClinic and Take Care clinics, and they're gaining floorspace in a hurry, from about 160 locations nationwide now to a projected 500 or more by the end of the year. The immediate selling point here is price and convenience.

Many of the clinics charge in the $50 range for a visit, plus they post their charges just like a dry cleaner might. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Minnesota analyzed nearly 23,000 retail clinic visits among its members and found costs to be about half that of a typical office visit: $43 compared with $87. Insurers find it hard to argue with increased access at a lower cost. In fact, insurers account for payment in 85% of MinuteClinic visits.

This is a great concept, and it solves a lot of the complaints consumers have about healthcare delivery for minor issues. For example, every youth athlete in the country is beating a path to the pediatrician right now for a mandatory physical in order to sign up for school sports. Soccer moms are having a hard time getting their kids in, and pediatricians are inundated with requests. Here's a win-win where the retail clinic offers moms a convenience but also frees up physicians for more complex care.

So far the biggest criticism of the retail concept is that a nurse practitioner might overlook serious illnesses. Clinics address that by limiting services. If a patient presents with symptoms that the nurse practitioner should not diagnose or treat as determined by a sponsoring physician that oversees the clinical operations, the patient is referred to a physician for care. For example, if you suspect you have strep and your temperature is 101 degrees, the nurse practitioner can diagnose and write a prescription if necessary. If your temperature exceeds 103 degrees or if you also have a stiff neck, you'd be referred to a physician instead.

Even the clinics' competition is getting in on the action now. Some large health systems are starting their own retail clinics or partnering with their rivals for referrals and clinical oversight. This is an opportunity that I would encourage readers to keep on the radar. I know I'm looking forward to the day a retail clinic moves into my neighborhood.

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Julie Miller is editor-in-chief of MANAGED HEALTHCARE EXECUTIVE. She can be reached at julie.miller@advanstar.com