The Pros and Cons of Retail Health Clinics
Next time you are heading to the grocery store, remember to add “healthcare” to your shopping list! Yes, healthcare services are now being offered at local grocery stores, drug stores and general merchandise retailers, such as Shopko, Carnival, Cub Foods, Wal-Mart, Target, CVS, and Walgreens to name a few.
These retail clinics treat common medical conditions, such as colds, sinus infections, earaches, rashes, diarrhea, urinary tract infections, etc…and provide some preventative and wellness services such as flu shots and other immunizations. Care is usually delivered by a nurse practitioner or physician assistant, and many clinics accept common health insurance plans. The first clinic opened at a Target store in Minneapolis in 2000, and the number of retail clinics has grown exponentially over the last eight years to include approximately one thousand clinics nationwide. If you are contemplating using a retail clinic, here are some things to consider.
If you are frustrated from having to wait three weeks to get to see your family doctor and irritated from having to wait a couple of hours once you get there, you might want to give retail clinics a try. No appointments are needed, evening and weekend operating hours are provided and wait times are 15 minutes or less. And in case they can’t see you right away, they give you a restaurant-style pager so you can walk around the store while you wait.
Retail clinics have an upfront menu style pricing that is not typically found in any other healthcare setting. For example, MinuteClinic charges $62 for allergies, $67 for bladder infections, and $77 for step throat. Minor burns also cost $62 while wart removal costs just $69. Therefore, if you do not have health insurance or prefer to pay out-of-pocket, the prices range between $60 and $70 for most conditions. If you do have health insurance, you will be charged your regular co-pay.
Retail clinics are staffed mainly by a physician assistant or nurse practitioner. A doctor typically serves as a clinic supervisor and is available for phone consultations and performs routine chart reviews, but is not required to be physically present at the clinic. Therefore, the care is provided by non-physician providers all the time. And while these providers are well trained and appropriately qualified to treat minor ailments, their scope of practice is obviously not as wide as that of a primary care or family doctor. Therefore, the important question is who can they and who can’t they treat?
Physician Assistants are healthcare professionals that deliver healthcare services under the supervision of a physician. They diagnose and treat illnesses, write prescriptions in all 50 states, order and interpret tests, and can conduct physicals and counsel patients on prevention. Their education typically consists of 2-3 years of specific graduate studies after a bachelor degree.
Nurse Practitioners are advanced practice nurses that offer a broad range of healthcare services but do not need to practice under the supervision of a physician. Their scope of practice is very similar to that of PAs, but their education consists of an RN (Registered Nurse) degree and a 2-year graduate degree.
It is important for patients to know that PAs and NPs are not only found in retail clinics. In fact, if you have visited your family physician, OB/GYN or even dermatologist lately, you may have seen a non-physician provider rather than your regular physician.
A poll of customers who have used retail clinics showed high overall satisfaction with cost (86% satisfaction), convenience (93%), having qualified staff to provide care (88%) and quality of care (90%). A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine comparing cost of care and quality outcomes at retail clinics versus other settings such as urgent care centers, physician offices, and emergency rooms, found that retail clincs did as well or better than other settings of care in terms of quality.
However, for most people, the idea of receiving healthcare services at their local grocery or drug store is still a foreign one. That is why only 2.3% of American families had used retail clinics as of 2007.
If you are generally healthy, and all you need is a prescription for that annoying sore throat on a Saturday afternoon, then the retail clinic might be the place to go. Also, if you are traveling and happen to come down with a minor cold, chances are you cannot get in touch with your regular doctor and your health plan may not cover the doctor available to you. In this case, the retail clinic is a convenient, fast and cheap(er) way to get care so you can resume your fun vacation or get ready for that big presentation or job interview.
However, if you have a complicated medical history or currently suffer from a chronic health condition such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer or asthma, chances are the providers at the retail clinic may not be able to treat you. The reason is they don’t have complete access to your medical file and your conditions are outside the scope of their practice. Moreover, these clinics are not designed to provide a long-term treatment and follow-up plan. In this case, your best bet is still your regular doctor, an urgent care clinic, or the Emergency department.
So how can patients prepare before going the retail clinic? When you plan to visit a retail clinic, Dr. Jennifer Ashton recommends that you know your own medical history, bring a list of all of your medications, get a phone number in case things worsen, and follow-up with your regular doctor.
Retail clinics should be used in addition, not instead of your regular doctor’s care. So don’t be tempted to call your doctor’s office and tell them to “get lost” just because a new MinuteClinic has opened around the corner!
This is a post from our sister blog, Healthcare Hacks. Visit Healthcare Hacks for tips on navigating the medical maze.