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Swine Flu May Test Retail Health Initiatives

While a lot of people are wondering about the affect the beginnings of economic recovery will have on retail, fewer are considering the impact swine flu might have, but it could be significant.

Among other things, it is likely to give retailers operating retail health clinics significant trial from people seeking diagnosis or treatment, which provides an opportunity but also a challenge, as some have struggled with those operations.

In Britain, which has been particularly hard hit by swine flu even through summer, people are being asked to self diagnose and treat themselves unless they become profoundly ill because the medical system is straining. If hospitals and doctors offices here become overwhelmed, people may well turn to inexpensive retail clinics for help, particularly if they don't have health insurance.

Britain is bracing for an acceleration of the infection rate that may reflect illness in a third of the population. While drug producers, particularly those producing anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu, have experienced a surge in sales, and criticism, drug chains have also seen increased sales in categories such as thermometers as the government has emphasized self treatment but also, as it also has called for greater focus on hygiene, sales of liquid soap and antibacterial wipes.

According to published reports, the British drug store chain Superdrug has seen a 10-fold increase in the sale of thermometers and Lloyds Chemist has seen a seven-fold increase in sanitizing hand gel sales. In fact, The Nielsen Co. has tracked a nationwide increase in digital thermometer sales of 57 percent, an increase in antiseptic wipe sales of 45 percent and an increase in liquid soap sales of 18 percent.

So what's likely to happen in the United States? The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 40 percent of the workforce could be infected by swine flu before the disease runs its course. In response, government agencies already have started emphasizing preventative measures, with commensurate gains in sales of antibacterial gels and a range of other preventative products, even surgical masks.

But in a country where around 45 million people lack health insurance, low-cost retail clinics are likely to be an important resource for treatment. If they can hold up to the strain of the likely demand, they should become more integral health care institutions in the communities they serve and provide a distinct advantage for the retailers that have invested in them. Walgreens, CVS and Wal-Mart, among others, have launched retailer clinics yet, in some instances, have struggled with a tricky business model that has even forced some of their medical partners out of the business. Drug chains, supermarkets and discounters have also been reconfiguring pharmacy operations, in many cases so consumers can better consult with pharmacists. Such arrangements also will be tested if the swine flu epidemic reaches anything like the predicted proportions. If retailers come up short in the crisis, their strategy to take a bigger role in community health care may itself fall victim to swine flu.