Retail health clinics make care accessible, affordable

One of the things I haven’t gotten around to discussing much here at The Self-Pay Patient blog is the use of retail health clinics, and how they can be a great option for the uninsured or anybody else for that matter who is looking for convenient and affordable care.

Probably the best known of these types of clinics is Minute Clinic, founded more than a decade ago in the Minneapolis area. These days the clinics are primarily found in CVS Pharmacies, which bought the retail clinic chain several years ago. Their web site boasts of more than 650 locations in 27 states across the country. 

Retail health clinics are typically staffed by Nurse Practitioners, who typically have both a four-year nursing degree and a three-year Master’s level degree. They are able to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medicines for many relatively simple conditions such as strep throat, pink-eye, and ear infections, and can also assist in monitoring and managing chronic conditions like diabetes and asthma. They provide vaccination services as well. 

There are two key features that make retail clinics a great option for self-pay patients, or anybody else for that matter. The first is the convenience – these are ‘walk-in’ clinics that mean you don’t need an appointment, and patients are usually seen right away or after only a brief delay. They are typically also open in the evenings and on weekends, making them good alternatives to a visit to an urgent care center that might otherwise be the only alternative to the emergency room if the doctor’s office is closed. 

One other convenient aspect is that because so many of them are located in pharmacies, it makes it convenient to get a prescription filled right there. At the same time this can be a drawback if it means patients don’t shop for the best prices on prescription drugs.

The second key feature is that they offer clear, up-front pricing for all of their services. For example, the Healthcare Clinic chain, located in many Walgreen’s stores, lists price for ear-wax removal ($59 – $79), closing a minor cut with a suture ($150 – $185), and flu vaccination ($31.99 for a shot, $39.99 for a nasal mist spray).

The prices charged generally seem reasonable, although cash-only doctors can often beat their prices (as this doctor in Texas that I wrote about a while back does, with a $30 charge for a visit).

All told there are nearly 1,300 retail clinics around the country, according to a recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Here is how that study described retail health clinics and their growth:

Retail clinics are walk-in health clinics commonly located inside pharmacies, supermarkets or “big-box” retailers that typically provide basic preventive services, such as vaccinations, and treat simple health ailments, such as strep throat and ear infections. Retail clinics usually offer extended hours on evenings and weekends, employ non-physician clinicians, charge relatively low, set prices for services, and display prices prominently so consumers are aware of the costs before receiving care.

When retail clinics first began operating in the early 2000s, few accepted health insurance, and most required cash payment upfront from patients. By 2008, the vast majority of clinics were accepting private insurance (97%) and Medicare (93%) and an increasing proportion (60%) were accepting Medicaid.1 For most privately insured patients, out-of-pocket cost sharing for retail clinic visits is usually the same as for primary care office visits; however, some employers encourage retail clinic use by reducing copayments for clinic visits compared with primary care office visits.

As the number of retail clinics has grown over the past decade, American families’ use of these clinics has increased. In 2010, 5 percent of U.S. families—or nearly 7 million families—reported ever using a retail clinic, and 3 percent—about 4.1 million families—reported doing so in the previous year…

Although the number of families using retail clinics remains modest, estimated use in 2010 nearly tripled from 2007, when only 2 percent of families reported ever using a retail clinic and only 1 percent used a clinic in the previous year. In part, the growth reflects the ever-increasing number of retail clinics across the United States—the count swelled from 818 clinics in 36 states in 2007 to 1,260 in 42 states in 2010. In turn, the growing number of clinics reflects operators’ assessments of increasing demand for retail clinic services…

While Minute Clinic is by far the largest retail health clinic operator, there are several smaller local and regional networks, such as CareWorks Health (Pennsylvania), RediClinic (Texas), and Aurora QuickCare Clinics (Wisconsin). Target also has clinics in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia, and The Little Clinic  has locations in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.

You can find the clinic nearest to you at this site: Healthcare 311.

While the nurse practitioners who typically staff retail health clinics lack the training and experience of doctors, they are generally very capable of dealing with patients who have relatively minor medical issues, and they know to refer patients to physicians if they aren’t capable of treating a patient.

The combination of convenience and real prices make retail health clinics an excellent option for self-pay patients or anyone else looking to get quick access to relatively simple primary care at an affordable cost.

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