Store-based health clinics — which are staffed mostly by nurse practitioners and offer quick services for routine conditions from colds and bladder infections to sunburn — aren't just a health care fad anymore, but fast becoming a serious industry.
About 7 percent of Americans have tried a clinic at least once, according to an estimate by the Convenient Care Association, an industry trade group formed last year. That number is expected to increase dramatically, as major pharmacy operators like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., CVS Corp., Target Corp. and Walgreen Co., partner with miniclinic providers like RediClinic and MinuteClinic to expand operations. The trade group estimated there will be more than 700 by year-end, up from the more than 400 now, and 2,000 by the end of 2008.
With the nation's $2 trillion health care system in need of repair, such an express approach to health care — which offers a wait time averaging about 15 minutes and evening and weekend hours — is being heralded as serving up a cheaper and quicker alternative than a doctor's office or an emergency room. A physical exam costs on average $60, while a flu shot typically costs about $20. A strep throat test has a price tag of about $15.
"I was frankly very impressed with how thorough (the examination) was," said Susan Anthony, who visited a clinic at a Phoenix, Md., Target for a dry cough. "And it was fast. I walked in at 10:30 a.m. and was in my car a little after 11:00 a.m."
The American Medical Association said a growing number of medical practices are extending their office hours or forming their own clinics to compete. But concerns about quality of care are rising among physicians and some industry experts say the clinics' services need to be more comprehensive if they are going to have a big impact on reducing overall health care costs.
The competition is already spawning expanded services as well as new spinoffs. Consumer Health Services Inc. — founded by a former investor of MinuteClinic, considered the pioneer in the industry — just started rolling out walk-in doctor's offices at Duane Reade Inc. drugstores in the New York City area. The clinics offer broader services that include wart removal and treatment for sprained ankles.
The ventures are promising enough that big-shot investors are jumping into the game. RediClinic got an undisclosed cash infusion from Revolution LLC, the investment house launched by AOL founder Steve Case.
Support among health insurance companies is also growing; about 40 percent to 50 percent of clinics accept insurance from providers like Humana Inc., UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Aetna Inc., according to CCA.
"(Store-based clinics) provide another access point for our members," said Allen Karp, vice president of health care delivery for Aetna.
But concerns are rising in the medical industry that these operations remain largely unregulated and are prone to conflicts of interest. Some physicians are also concerned that the clinics could disrupt the continuity of care and result in serious underlying health conditions going undetected.