Retail clinics not taking off quite yet

Drug chains CVS and Walgreens, as well as big-box retailers Wal-Mart and Target, have been expanding their retail clinics.(AP photo/M. Spencer Green) Drug chains CVS and Walgreens, as well as big-box retailers Wal-Mart and Target, have been expanding their retail clinics.(AP photo/M. Spencer Green)

For Americans needing an annual check-up, a flu vaccination or infection treated, retail clinics are an easy way to do that. Users point to convenience — extended operating hours, walk-in visits and convenient locations.

That’s the primary reason retail health clinics are booming, according to a new report. But despite persistent predictions of massive growth on the horizon, it’s still not as much as it could be — or will be — researchers note.

The percentage of American families using retail clinics in the last year nearly tripled between 2007 and 2010, from 1.2 percent of families to 2.9 percent, according a report by the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan policy research group. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the study.

Despite increased use, researchers found overall clinic utilization remained modest.

“It’s an open question whether retail clinics will grow beyond their current limited role in the health care delivery system and finally emerge as the widespread disruptive innovation some have long predicted,” said Ha T. Tu, senior health researcher for the center and one of the study’s co-authors.

One reason for the modest use? Patients with a primary care doctor don’t particularly see the need. Most often, patients want the same care by the same provider, and others might question trust in retail locations. Uninsured and low-income families, on the other hand, were much more likely to cite lower cost and a lack of a usual source of care as reasons for choosing retail clinics.

But that could change in a matter of months because of the influx of newly insured patients under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. PPACA could “increase demand for retail services as more people become insured and it becomes increasingly difficult to find access to primary care,” researchers said.

The report points to other good news for retail clinics: For one, more younger families — those with a family respondent aged 18-49 — and families with children are likely to use the clinics. More patients also are utilizing the clinics for vaccinations (26 percent) and prescription renewals (21 percent), not just diagnosis and treatment of a new illness or symptom.

And convenience remains a significant draw to busy Americans. Almost three in five clinic users said the clinic’s convenient hours were a major factor in choosing it over another source of care. The ability to receive care without an appointment (56 percent) and a convenient location (48 percent) also were commonly cited as major reasons for choosing retail clinics.

Earlier this year, consulting firm Accenture predicted the number of walk-in medical facilities located in retail stores will double by 2015, from roughly 1,500 clinics now to 3,000 by 2015. The clinics are expected to account for 10 percent of non-primary care outpatient visits within three years, Accenture said.

Drug chains CVS and Walgreens, as well as big-box retailers Wal-Mart and Target, have been expanding their retail clinics.

CVS's MinuteClinic business posted 18 percent revenue growth during the third quarter.

According to Accenture, the growing number of retail health clinics is expected to drive $800 million in annual cost savings by 2015 and will add capacity for 10.8 million patient visits per year, compared to 5.1 million in 2011.

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