Retail health clinics are popping up everywhere. Nowadays, they reside in pharmacies, chain drug stores such as Walgreens and CVS, in supermarkets and big-box stores, such as Walmart and Target.
According to a recent report from consulting firm Accenture, the U.S. had fewer than 750 such walk-in clinics in 2007. By the end of 2017, Accenture predicts the number of retail medical clinics will exceed 2,800. According to the Convenient Care Association (CCA),beyond consumers’ desire for easy access to care, two factors have largely driven the steep increase in the numbers of retail medical clinics, the shortage of primary care providers and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. While the physician shortage will persist for some time as a factor, the uncertain future of health care reform legislation does complicate the prediction of long-term demand for retail medical clinics. Nonetheless, according to Tine Hansen-Turton, executive director of the CCA, “All indications are that the rapid growth will be continuing.” She stresses the convenience and affordability of retail medicine, especially for people with high deductible, catastrophic type health plans.
To see how primary care providers themselves view the trend, in 2015, Accenture surveyed 1,000 physicians in the U.S., and asked their opinion about their patients using such clinics. Forty-one percent of the respondents said that they were comfortable with their patients using a retail clinic for certain preventive services, such as vaccinations. However, 17% said that they were not comfortable with their patients using retail centers for primary care.
Keeping patients close
Mark Puffenberger, MD, who practices family medicine, and his partners at the Intermountain Medical Group observed walk-in clinics sprouting in their area in Shavertown, Pennsylvania. The local Walmart, Sam’s Club and a CVS all had clinics that were starting to serve some of their patients. In addition, the Geisinger Health System, which is a competitor to the hospital system that owns the Intermountain practices, opened its own urgent care center. Some Intermountain patients were seeking care there, too.
Puffenberger recalls spending hours making rounds at the hospital, during which he would often take phone calls from patients with everyday issues, like colds or the flu. Those patients calling in wanted to be seen quickly, but there simply wasn’t enough time to continue making rounds and satisfy the acutely ill patients.
“It was bad medicine, and (we) lost revenue,” he says.
Watching competitors attracting their patients, and feeling that they weren’t fully serving them led Puffenberger and his colleagues to open their own walk-in clinic at their Shavertown location, about 18 months ago. Puffenberger’s group is the first of the 22 primary care sites that are part of Intermountain to open a walk-in clinic.