Weighing the retail clinic option

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A pair of new studies shed some light on the use of retail clinics and their potential as an alternative site for health care.

With the push to rein in health care costs for both consumers and payers, retail clinics have been seen as a more affordable option to doctor’s office and emergency room visits. But an analysis in the March issue of the journal Health Affairs concluded that retail clinics may end up raising health care expenditures because they drive more usage of health care services.

“Though retail clinics have been promoted as a means of reducing health care spending by substituting for more expensive providers, we found that most retail clinic visits represented new utilization and therefore increased health care spending per person per year for low-acuity conditions,” said the report.

Specifically, the study found that retail clinic use came with a modest rise in spending of $14 per person annually, as 58% of the retail clinic visits for low-acuity conditions signaled new utilization of health services.

“These results should help inform payers’ coverage decisions for retail clinics and other care options that increase convenience and access,” the report stated. “Further research should investigate how retail clinics affect the coordination of care, care for chronic illnesses and overall spending.”

Meanwhile, a survey by management consulting firm Oliver Wyman revealed that while many consumers are amenable to getting care at a retail clinic and have had positive experiences in clinic visits, there are boundaries to the services they’re willing to receive and where.

Seventy percent of consumers polled said they were familiar with health and wellness clinics in retail stores, and quarter of them have used a retail clinic. Of people who had visited a retail clinic in the past two years — in a drug store, supermarket or discount store — 79% said the experience was about the same or better than a doctor’s office visit. And of those consumers, 22% indicated that the retail clinic was better and 9% found the retail clinic much better.

However, Oliver Wyman noted that consumers aren’t comfortable receiving all types of care in a retail clinic setting under all conditions.

For example, just 12% said they would go to a retail clinic for some wellness services but not for any medical needs, and 32% said they’d use a retail clinic only if it were affiliated with a local hospital, area health care provider or their doctor. And 42% reported they’d go to a retail clinic only if their health plan covered some or all of the cost.

Of those who wouldn’t use a retail clinic, 57% of respondents said they don’t feel comfortable getting medical care outside a doctor’s office, emergency room, medical center or hospital, while 35% said they don’t trust retail stores to provide such services.

The Oliver Wyman study, titled “The New Front Door to Health Care Is Here,” examined consumer attitudes toward a range of alternative health care sites, including urgent care centers, retail clinics, telehealth technology and mobile health apps.

Interestingly, in the retail setting, 20% of those surveyed said they would seek health and wellness services at a drug store but not at a discount store or supermarket.

The reasons that consumers cited for preferring a drug store for health care, Oliver Wyman found, included having pharmacists on staff, who they consider more reliable for care; a perception that the quality of care and staff is higher at drug stores than other retail settings; the convenience of being able to get prescriptions filled where they receive clinic services (even though many supermarkets operate full-service pharmacies as well); and concerns about having sick patients in the same area they buy groceries and the level of privacy at other retailers.

“Despite these reservations and preferences, there is a marked shift in consumers’ willingness to use alternative sites,” the report said. “Consequently, we expect their use of alternative sites is going to continue to grow.”



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