Retail health clinics: How your practice can compete

September 19, 2008

The growth of retail clinics means that fewer patients are visiting their primary care doctors for simple respiratory infections, upset stomachs, and earaches. And physician practices are starting to take notice.

Key Points

The 1,000th retail health clinic in America was christened in August, eight years after the first clinic of its kind was unveiled.

Typically located in drug store chains such as Walgreens and CVS, and staffed with nurse practitioners rather than physicians, retail clinics continue to expand in response to patients' demand for routine medical care on their schedule, according to consumer surveys. In many cases, they are even willing to pay more for the convenience.

The growth of retail clinics means that fewer patients are visiting their primary care doctors for simple respiratory infections, upset stomachs, and earaches. And physician practices are starting to take notice.

"I don't think I appreciated how much there was a need prior to opening [the facility] as much I realize it now," Lang says. "Patient satisfaction is so remarkably high there that it's fascinating to me."

And the demand is growing. Walgreens' Take Care Health Centers, which launched their first clinic in 2004 and now number some 200 nationwide, announced in June they had treated more than 500,000 patients. CVS Corp.'s MinuteClinic, which opened in Minnesota in 2000, now has 520 offices around the country and has served more than two million patients, with a 99 percent satisfaction rate, according to the company's research. (A 2008 Harris poll shows retail clinics overall have a 90 percent quality-of-care satisfaction rate.) Walgreens intends to reach 400 Take Care locations by year's end, while CVS aims to add 250 clinics over the same period.

Not surprisingly, big box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target are eager to entice those customers into their aisles as well. In April, Wal-Mart opened its first three co-branded clinics and plans to unveil 400 in-store offices by 2010. These were the first so-called "Clinics at Wal-Mart," but the world's largest retailer already had 39 clinics in nine states with various independent operators, though it is not using its brand with those earlier versions. Unlike CVS and Walgreens, Wal-Mart does not own or operate any of its clinics, but merely leases the retail floor space to the provider.

Most often, Wal-Mart has partnered with Houston-based RediClinic, which in turn typically partners with local hospitals and health systems to staff the clinics.

"We are committed to our goals, and have had over 400 hospitals and health systems contact us about operating clinics in our stores," says Christi Davis Gallagher, senior communications manager for Wal-Mart.

Target, meanwhile, has opened 25 clinics-all of them in Minnesota and Maryland, two of its strongest markets. Until August, those clinics had been owned and operated by an independent company, but Target has since acquired the clinics and plans to operate them internally, says Sonja Pothen, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based retailer. Target will open four clinics this fall, according to Pothen, who declined to elaborate on the company's long-term plans.

"We see there is great potential to grow the Target Clinic format more broadly," she says.

While some physicians and hospital emergency departments might welcome a respite from their overbooked schedules and crowded waiting rooms, others worry that retail clinics are chipping away at their earnings by luring patients away for quick, reimbursable treatments.

"There's no doubt that what they pull are our bread-and-butter," Lang says. "They certainly take those easier patients away, but I would not say [opening an immediate care center] was a response to them. It was less of a defensive move and much more of an offensive move."