Clinics Signal Pharmacy's Growing Role in Health Care

DECEMBER 01, 2008
Lauren Green, Associate Editor

One of the most exciting trends in health care today is the walk-in clinic, a place where patients can receive care for common ailments like sore throats and allergies, get their flu shot, or have their blood pressure checked—on the spot, after hours, and without an appointment. Not surprisingly, the local pharmacy is at the frontline of this movement.

These clinics provide a convenient and affordable option for patients looking for quick access to meet many of their health care needs. They can be found at 1060 retail outlets with pharmacies across the country. The numbers are growing, according to the Convenient Care Association (CCA), whose members represent more than 95% of the industry. The CCA reports that fewer than 200 clinics were in existence when the association was established in 2006, a clear indication of the industry's healthy growth.

"The demand for affordable, accessible health care is why convenient care clinics have flourished," notes CCA executive director Tine Hansen-Turton, MGA, JD. "Patients with very basic medical needs are in serious need of alternatives to overcrowded doctors' offices or emergency rooms." She added that clinics are thriving around the country and are particularly well-established in the South and the Midwest, with a strong presence in California and Texas as well.

Surveys reveal walk-in clinics are very popular with patients. This year, a WSJ. com/Harris Interactive health care study found that US adults who have used clinics in a pharmacy or retail chain are generally pleased with the quality of care they received. This study found that clinics are most frequently used for vaccinations (40%) and treatments for a common medical condition like an ear infection or cold (39%). The CCA has compiled a list of treatments that patients most commonly access through their local walk-in clinic (Table).

Patients also go to retail clinics for routine sports, school, or camp physical examinations. The convenience of clinics is a big plus. The CCA notes that clinics are generally open 7 days a week, with extended weekday hours, and visits generally take 15 to 20 minutes.

Affordable, High-Quality Care


Top Treatments at Convenient Care Clinics
  • Sore throat
  • Common colds/cold symptoms
  • Flu symptoms
  • Cough
  • Sinus infection
  • Allergies
  • Immunizations
  • Blood pressure testing
Clinics generally accept many insurance plans. In fact, the biggest change from last year noted in the Harris survey is the percentage of adults whose health insurance covered some or all of the costs at the clinic, rising from 42% in 2007 to 62% in 2008. Clinics also are a more affordable option for patients without health insurance, with these patients typically paying $40 to $75 for a clinic visit, which is far less than they would be billed for emergency room care. In addition, clinics reduce costs by providing preventive care, like flu shots, and facilitating earlier access to care.

One of the first retail chains to advance the concept of community pharmacy care was Kerr Drug, which in 1998 launched its Enhanced Pharmaceutical Care Center model at several of its pharmacies, offering patients access to a full range of clinical services in the convenience of their local drugstore. Fully staffed by pharmacy and pharmacy residents from partnering universities, these centers provided patients access to screenings for conditions such as diabetes, cholesterol, and osteoporosis, as well as wellness programs in smoking cessation, weight loss, and asthma. Today, Kerr health care centers can be found at store locations throughout the Carolinas.

Over the summer, Walgreens' Take Care Clinics reached an important milestone, marking the 500,000th patient treated since the first clinic opened in November 2005. The company now has more than 300 Take Care Clinics in 15 states, staffed by nationally certified nurse practitioners or physician assistants. Take Care's model encourages all patients to have a "health care home," a medical provider they can see regularly for ongoing medical needs and routine exams. If a patient's condition falls outside of the scope of practice at the clinic, the patient is referred back to his or her primary health care provider for follow-on care.

MinuteClinic, a subsidiary of CVS Caremark Corp, is the largest retail health clinic in the United States, with a national network extending to 25 states. "Our role in creating a more convenient model for high-quality health care delivery is particularly evident this time of year, as thousands of patients suffering from colds and flu visit our clinics near their home, school, or office, or while traveling on business or vacation," said James Hartert, MD, MinuteClinic's chief medical officer.

Rite Aid currently partners with retail-based medical clinics in California, Idaho, and the state of Washington, where it recently opened 2 MultiCare Express Clinics at stores in Tacoma and Lakewood. MultiCare's secure electronic health record system—MultiCare Connect—gives patients the convenience of having the same computerized health information available each time they visit a health care provider within the MultiCare system. Electronic medical records, which can be shared with a patient's primary care practitioner at the patient's request, are used widely by clinics in order to facilitate continuity of care.

Another leading provider, The Little Clinic, currently operates 26 walk-in medical clinics in Kroger's family of stores across 7 states. In announcing its formal partnership with The Little Clinic last spring, Kroger noted plans for a substantial clinic rollout, recognizing a growing desire among patients to be proactive about managing their health and wellness.

Looking Ahead

Not surprisingly, clinics are proving to be an effective way for pharmacies to grow their business. The 2008 Retail Clinic Consumer Tracking Study by Market Strategies International found that 86% of patients rated their retail clinic visit as being of equal or better quality than a visit to their regular doctor. This survey also found that, of those patients who do receive scripts or require other medications during a retail clinic visit, 80% filled those prescriptions or OTC products in the same store where a clinic is located.

"We expect that as the convenient care model of health care becomes more fully integrated into the US health care system, these clinics will continue to open in new locations and new markets, owing to consumer demand," notes Hansen-Turton. "This model of care is nimble enough to adapt to changing consumer needs and provides a useful complement to existing primary care providers."

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