Use of retail medical clinics is rising, study says

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Americans are increasingly turning to retail medical clinics in pharmacies, grocery stores and other shopping outlets to treat the flu, ear infections, bronchitis and other ailments, a new study shows.

Use of clinics is growing particularly among young, healthy, and higher-income patients who live close to the facilities, according to the analysis from the Rand Corp.

Researchers examined the medical choices of 13.3 million commercially insured patients from 2007 to 2009. During that time, the rate at which patients visited retail clinics on a monthly basis rose nearly 10-fold -- from 0.3 visits per 1,000 people to 2.7 visits per 1,000.

The reliance on the retail clinics could grow even more as national healthcare reforms unfold. That’s because millions of Americans are expected to gain health insurance in 2014 under President Obama’s healthcare plan, which will provide government subsidies to people who otherwise could not afford coverage.


Already, retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it is exploring ways to expand the kinds of healthcare services it offers at dozens of its stores across the country.

The Arkansas company, the nation’s largest retailer, is looking to partner with outside healthcare companies to treat and manage serious medical conditions such as HIV, diabetes, arthritis and clinical depression.

The Rand researchers said that medical care delivered at retail clinics is 30% to 40% less expensive than care provided in a doctor’s office, and 80% cheaper than services delivered in emergency rooms.

Still, the researchers said they could not determine whether the expanded use of retail clinics will raise or lower healthcare costs.

“If the growth in retail clinic visits that we noted represents substitution for other sources of care, then the increase … could lead to lower costs,” said J. Scott Ashwood, a Rand researcher and the study’s lead author.

“However, if these visits represent new utilization or induced demand -- in other words, patients are seeking care when they would have otherwise stayed home -- then costs could increase,” Ashwood added. “Answering these questions requires additional study.”


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-- Duke Helfand