Retail Health Clinics Continue to Grow in Popularity

February 2013

Reducing health care costs and addressing the issue of primary care physician shortage are two issues at the forefront of the health policy discussion. Some have suggested that retail health clinics, or walk-in medical clinics located in pharmacies, superstores, and workplaces, could potentially address both of these issues. These clinics, a type of “disruptive innovation” in care delivery, are quickly gaining popularity. According to a recent article by Amanda Gardner in U.S. News and World Report, which details the findings of a new poll from Harris Interactive/HealthDay, 27 percent of adults surveyed indicated that they had used a retail or workplace health clinic in the past two years. In contrast, only 7 percent of adults indicated use of a retail or workplace clinic in 2007. 

According to the survey, retail health clinic users are more likely to be young adults. Forty percent of younger adults (25-29) had used retail clinics, as opposed to 15 percent of older adults (65 and older). Assessing the results, Kathleen Jaeger from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores noted that older adults tend to have chronic conditions, while retail clinics are best equipped to handle acute care services. Some examples of common services provided in a retail clinic include treatment of cold, flu, and minor wounds, and preventive services like flu shots and cholesterol screenings. The survey results showed that convenient location, not requiring an appointment, short wait times, accessible hours, and affordable services were the most commonly cited reasons for visiting a retail clinic.

HCFO-funded researcher Ateev Mehrotra, M.D., conducted a study on the impact of retail clinics on overall utilization of care. In an article published in the November 2011 issue of American Journal of Managed Care, Mehrotra found that retail clinic use for those with acute conditions increased tenfold from 2007 to 2009. He found living close to a retail clinic to be one of the strongest predictors of use. Young, healthy, higher-income individuals who live near a retail clinic are more likely to visit one than the general population. While proponents of the clinics cite the physician shortage as a factor behind the increasing number of retail clinics, Dr. Mehrotra found that the use of retail clinics was not higher in communities with a shortage of physicians. Instead, he found an equal utilization rate in federally designated primary care Health Professional Shortage Areas and other areas. In related work, Mehrotra and colleagues published a paper in the October 2012 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine examining the relationship between use of retail health clinics and receipt of primary care services. 

Humphrey Taylor, Harris Poll chairman, asserts that retail clinics are treating many millions of patients, many of whom might otherwise go to doctors’ offices, and some of whom might to hospital emergency rooms. He states that this shift has the potential to save health plans money. This care model is likely to continue to diffuse into various health care marketplaces and the implications for access and costs will continue to evolve over time.