Retail Clinics Add Convenience But Also Hike Costs
By Chad Terhune
Tue, Mar 8 2016
Retail clinics, long seen as an antidote to more expensive doctor offices and emergency rooms, may actually boost medical spending by leading consumers to get more care, a new study shows.
Rather than substituting for a physician office visit or trip to the hospital, 58 percent of retail clinic visits for minor conditions represented a new use of medical services, according to the study published Monday in the journal Health Affairs. Those additional visits led to a modest increase in overall health care spending of $14 per person per year.
“This challenges the conventional wisdom that retail clinics save the health care system money,” said Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “The increase in spending from new utilization trumps the savings we saw from replacing doctor visits and the emergency department.”
There are more than 2,000 in-store clinics nationwide, and they handle about 6 million patient visits annually, the study said.
They are popular with many consumers who like strolling in for care with no appointment, as opposed to waiting hours elsewhere, and they are open seven days a week. These small clinics are typically run by nurse practitioners and treat infections, mild sprains and handle other preventive care such as immunizations.
CVS Health Corp.’s MinuteClinic is the industry leader with more than 1,100 locations. Many health insurers and employers encourage people to use these clinics, in some cases waiving co-payments.
But Mehrotra said policymakers and health insurers should realize that promoting more convenient options, from retail clinics to online doctor visits, may spur more use and higher costs.
“As we make things more convenient people will use it a lot more,” said Mehrotra, also a researcher at Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.
The study doesn’t contradict earlier research that found retail clinics provide care that costs 30 to 40 percent less than similar care provided at a physician’s office and that the treatment for routine illnesses was of similar quality. But it suggests those savings are more than offset by increased use of medical services.