At a time when a sluggish economy continues to spiral downward, retail medical clinics are on the rise. According to Merchant Medicine, the number of clinics had risen to 1,135 by late 2008ï¿½a five-fold increase over the course of the last 2 years.
At a time when a sluggish economy continues to spiral downward, retail medical clinics are on the rise. According to Merchant Medicine, the number of clinics had risen to 1,135 by late 2008—a five-fold increase over the course of the last 2 years. CVS and Walgreens, with their MinuteClinics and Take Care facilities, respectively, are leading the growth spurt, but healthcare providers and hospitals are jumping into the fray in increasing numbers.
Russ Mulert, operations director of Alegent Health’s Quick Care clinics in Omaha, Neb., says the number one reason for the growth in popularity of retail clinics is the convenience factor. “It’s about being able to be seen when you want to be seen, quickly and efficiently,” he says. “It really is more about convenience than anything else for our patients.”
Deb Mathis and Michael Lewis, of Toms River, NJ-based Cowan, Gunteski & Company’s Healthcare Services Group, have followed the growth of retail clinics closely. And while they agree that convenience is a key reason for that growth, access to care is another factor that should not be ignored.
“If you call your primary care doctor and you’re running a fever, and the protocol of the practice is they don’t have any available openings, you get frustrated,” explains Mathis, who is the group’s director. “I think access is what’s driving some of these patients to go to these retail clinics.”
Dave Hoeft, MD, with the Eagle Run Health Clinic in Neb., agrees that convenience and access are bringing patients out. “[Patients] like the convenience of being able to walk in without an appointment and be seen for a minor problem,” says Hoeft, who has also used Alegent’s Quick Care clinics to his advantage. “I’ve had patients I’ve been able to send [to a retail clinic] for a blood pressure check—to actually have a live person do it instead of stopping at the automated machine in the grocery store. So, it’s been good for me as well as for patients.”
Good for business…and costs
When used appropriately, retail medical clinics can become an extension of physician practices. But Lewis explains that too often physicians see these clinics as adversaries instead of allies. “The impetus for retail health clinics didn’t come from the healthcare industry, it came from the business community,” Lewis says. “They were started by business people who perceived there was a need. But physicians haven’t looked at all of the opportunities that this can afford them, as an adjunct to their practice or as a practice builder.”
Lewis suggests that physicians should consider marketing themselves to retail clinics in their area. Let the clinic staff know that if they treat someone who doesn’t have a primary care physician, or who needs follow-up care, that you have the availability to see that patient. Or, in reverse, physicians should tell their patients that the clinic will see them at night or on weekends when the physician is not available.
Hoeft agrees. He says physicians have sent patients to Quick Care because they can’t fit them in for a same-day appointment, and have suggested Quick Care as an option to patients as opposed to going to the ER. “It certainly gives them a cheaper option than going to the ER and having to sit there for 3 or 4 hours.”
Avoiding a trip to the ER, says Mathis, means huge savings for the healthcare system. “The issue is the overutilization of ERs by patients who are underinsured or uninsured for routine illnesses that should never be seen in an ER. It could save unknown amounts of money for those patients to be treated in a more appropriate setting.”
Alegent’s Mulert expects to see retail medical clinics continue to grow in number and popularity. The healthcare provider, which currently has six facilities in the Omaha area, plans to add at least one new facility this year, and probably a few more before the market becomes saturated. Mulert also expects new players to make greater inroads in the market.
“I think you’re seeing more hospital systems get into this business,” he explains. “It’s a great way to acquire new patients. It’s a great way to expand your geographic footprint pretty cost effectively. And as electronic medical records become more available, I think you’ll start to see more connectivity between the retail clinics and primary care, which will hopefully lead to a better continuity of care for all patients.”
The heart of the matter, says Lewis, is physicians understanding how to grow their practice. “Revenue is down, and sometimes the knee-jerk reaction is to cut expenses as opposed to trying to think creatively for new ways to either market your practice or develop relationships that can increase patient volumes. Physicians need to change the way that they think.”
Ed Rabinowitz is a veteran healthcare writer and reporter. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.