The retail clinic and you

Edition: July 2007 - Vol 15 Number 07
Article#: 2707
Author: Repertoire

There are three ways for Repertoire readers to consider the ultimate impact of so-called retail clinics: First, their impact on your sales; second, their impact on each of us as healthcare consumers; and third, their impact on this country’s healthcare system.

The supply chain implications of the clinics are far from clear. It seems likely that the top-tier providers — e.g., Wal-Mart, MinuteClinic (now part of CVS/Caremark) and Take Care Health Systems (now part of Walgreens) — will pursue some kind of national-accounts agreement for supplies, either with a med/surg distributor or a pharmaceutical wholesaler. In the case of MinuteClinic and Take Care, it would make sense that the clinics would piggyback their orders on top of those for the drugstores in which they are housed. (Wal-Mart is a little hazier, since the retailer itself doesn’t own or operate its in-store clinics.)

That leaves the second-tier providers — the local and regional chains, the clinics owned by hospital systems, and all the rest. They very well might represent opportunities for distributor sales reps. It’s too early to tell the volume, but primarily, you’re talking rapid tests, vaccines, rudimentary supplies and some simple diagnostic equipment, as well as an exam table, stool and light.

The bigger impact of these clinics might be on the consumers of healthcare. If these clinics take hold and become part of the fabric of this country’s healthcare system, they could change consumers’ expectations of caregivers, and caregivers’ approach to their patients/customers. What a refreshing change to see prices posted on the doors of these clinics. As consumers increasingly handle their own health insurance or deal with high-deductible plans, cost becomes more important to them. Enquiring minds want to know upfront how much money certain procedures or tests will cost, and they’re frustrated at their caregiver’s inability or unwillingness to tell them. The “no-wait” promise of the retail clinics could launch new expectations. Just as McDonald’s whetted this country’s appetite for no-wait fast food, so too could the retail clinics whet our appetites for no-wait, fast care.

It seems fair to assume that these clinics could bite into the family physician’s and pediatrician’s business. If that’s the case, how will these doctors respond? Will they attempt to compete with the clinics by publishing their prices, lowering their prices, staying open longer, or increasing staff to reduce wait times? Or will they attempt to clearly differentiate themselves from the clinics, and simply play a different game?

Some may pursue (and in some states, already are pursuing) yet a third track: They may attempt to crush the clinics before they get too big. Some doctors warn that patients risk receiving inferior care at the hands of nurse practitioners (who staff many of the retail clinics). They warn of sick people slipping through the cracks of the system. Is their concern genuine, or are they afraid of the competition? Time will tell.

What about the ultimate impact of retail clinics on our healthcare system, particularly, on healthcare costs? Polls show that more than 20 percent of those visiting these clinics are uninsured. And, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Wal-Mart says that half of its clinic visitors are uninsured. Now, that could mean one of two things: Either uninsured people are visiting the walk-in clinics rather than the local emergency room (at greatly reduced costs), or they are seeking help for ailments that they might have ignored before, sometimes at some risk to their health (e.g., sore throats, ear aches, etc.). Until more data is accumulated, it’s difficult to pinpoint the bottom-line ramifications.

Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for a retail clinic in your local Walgreens, CVS or Wal-Mart. The clinics have received far more play in the consumer press than they have in local TV or newspaper ads, or on billboards. It’s as if these companies are attempting to fly under the radar, at least for now. That may change once the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and other newspapers and magazines lose interest.