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What do retail clinics mean for your practice?

Retail clinics are a great way for patients to get quick appointments for simple ailments, but what does the growing popularity of retail clinics mean for your practice?

Retail clinics like CVS’ MinuteClinic, Walgreens’ Health Clinic, and the Kroger minute clinic called The Little Clinic are a great way for patients to get quick appointments for simple ailments, like sore throats, allergic reactions, sprains, and body aches, as well as immunizations and physicals.

retail clinics

The growth in these retail clinics is undeniable. From their slow start in the 1970s, retail clinics have virtually exploded in number since 2007—an increase of more than 700%—to a current total nearing 2,000 storefronts. You may have opinions about how retail clinics have impacted your practice—or you may be part of one—but let’s get the dialog started.  Here are some simple Q&As that we have prepared to get you a bit more informed about the industry as a whole. Tell us your reactions and personal experiences with retail clinics in the comments section below.

What can retail clinics do and what are their limitations?

Retail clinics can treat a limited number of ailments, including nausea and vomiting, flu and colds, headaches, eye irritation and pink eye, sore throats, coughs, body aches and pains, skin rashes and infections, and minor cuts and strains. Retail clinics are also authorized to administer lab testing, STD testing, flu shots, school and work physicals, and vaccinations. These clinics do not generally minister to chronic conditions and illnesses, treat patients with complex ailments or medications, conduct follow-up visits or manage preventative care.

How do retail clinics compare with urgent care centers?

While urgent care centers are also a rapid growth area, they typically are classified as an ER alternative, rather than how retail clinics can serve as an alternative for a traditional doctor’s visit. Urgent care centers, which have cropped up both as independent operations and hospital offshoots, are usually staffed by urgent care physicians rather than NPs or PAs, and can perform x-rays, treat breaks and fractures and stitch cuts and gashes. According to the Urgent Care Center of America, there are now approximately 7,100 urgent care centers in the U.S., with an average wait time of just 30 minutes or less to see a provider.

How has the retail clinic landscape changed over the past decade?

According to data from the Huffington Post, the number of retail clinics (non-urgent facilities) stood at just 258 in 2007, yet by 2015 the total had grown to a whopping 1,866 storefronts.  The industry leader by a wide margin is CVS Health’s Minute Clinic, with more than 1,100 locations in 33 states. According to the CVS website, the first clinic, originally called QuickMedx, opened in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in May 2000. This clinic treated just seven common conditions: strep throat, mono, flu, pregnancy testing and bladder, ear and sinus infections.

Today, the major players include CVS, followed by Walgreens, Kroger, Walmart and Target. Together, these centers handled over 18 million patient visits in 2013, which is a dramatic increase from just two years earlier.

Top U.S. Retail Clinic Businesses by Number of Locations

  1. CVS MinuteClinic (1,100)
  2. Walgreen’s Healthcare Clinics (400)
  3. Kroger’s Little Clinic (300)
  4. WalMart Care Clinic (57)
  5. Rite Aide RediClinics (55)

Why have retail clinics become so popular?

In a word: convenience. People have become more demanding in the digital age. They want things to happen yesterday, especially when they are not feeling well and missing work or school. Retail clinics offer that flexibility, with their walk-in policies, short wait times and ample free parking. Today, you literally can go out to buy a greeting card and decide on the spot to get that stubborn rash or sore throat checked out all in one visit. These centers are branded as drop-in locations, where no appointment is needed, little paperwork is required and costs are relatively low.

Are they cutting into the traditional primary care business?

In some ways, they compete with traditional practices, and in some ways not. They are good at what they do: treating minor ailments and administering physicals and vaccines. What they are not good at is forming relationships with their patients, integrating treatments with total patient care, looking at patient histories and trends and ensuring continuity of care, treating women for gynecological and obstetric conditions, and managing complex conditions. For the general college kid who is basically healthy but has a sore throat, they work just fine.

The bottom line is that there is so much demand for primary care in the U.S., that there should be enough business to go around. A 2012 study by physicians Justin Altschuler, David Margolius et. al studied physician panel size, concluding that at a panel size of 2,500 (the U.S. average is 2,300), “a physician would need to spend 21.7 hours per day to provide all recommended acute, chronic, and preventive care.” According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, The U.S. will see a shortage of up to nearly 122,000 physicians by 2032 — in part because of this heavy workload, which discourages medical students from following this path.

What is your advice for traditional primary care providers in dealing with them?

“It is what it is,” as they say, so you may as well embrace this ancillary form of care, which is only going to continue to grow. They do offer the flexibility and convenience that customers crave, so your best bet if you feel threatened, is to try to increase your own flexibility with some evening or weekend care and delegate more patient work to less-credentialed staff. A recent study by Manatt Health revealed that despite tremendous growth in the sector, retail clinics represent only 2% of primary care encounters in the U.S., so chances are that there’s room for both sectors to exist side-by-side.

It is also important to continue to remind your patients and potential patients alike that you are around. Send them frequent health reminders and be sure to update them if you change your office hours or schedule to become more competitive with these venues. Your patient relationships have been cultivated and nurtured over a period of years in many cases. While your patients may desire a retail-type setting in addition to you for last-minute or sudden conditions—your patients are way too smart to leave a trusted relationship behind merely for the sake of convenience.

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