Retail medical clinics fine for routine care
Walk-in medical clinics in pharmacies, office buildings and malls provide care that is lower cost yet similar in quality to doctors' offices, urgent care centers and emergency departments, according to a study by RAND Corp.
Retail medical clinics have sprouted up around the nation in recent years but have been roundly criticized by many doctors who say they fear care will be inferior to what is provided in traditional settings. The question over the usefulness and quality of retail clinics is a crucial one in light of the upcoming flu season, which is expected to be unusually demanding on healthcare facilities.
The study examined the care of about 2,100 patients visiting retail clinics and compared them to similar patients treated in other healthcare settings. The patients had ear infections, sore throats or urinary tract infections; the types of straightforward medical conditions that retail clinics are designed to treat. No differences were found in the quality of care in patient visiting retail clinics compared to doctors' offices and urgent care centers. However, retail clinics performed slightly better than hospital emergency rooms.
The retail clinic costs were 30% to 40% lower than in doctors' offices and urgent care centers and 80% lower than in hospital emergency rooms.
"Nurse practitioners, rather than physicians, generally provide the care in retail clinics and our finding is consistent with previous research that shows no difference in quality of care delivered by nurse practitioners and physicians," the authors wrote.
The study also addressed a criticism that people who visit retail clinics might skimp on preventive medical care. But the researchers found no difference in the patients' subsequent preventive care visits in the three months following the illness visit, "which suggest that the clinics are not disrupting opportunities for preventive services."
A second study by RAND found that there are now more than 1,000 retail clinics in the country, and that about one-third of urban Americans live within a 10-minute drive to one. Both RAND studies will be published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
How retail clinics fare with the expected bonanza of H1N1 flu patients this winter may be a key to the long-term health and acceptance of the facilities. Today, CVS Caremark's Minute Clinics announced they will begin offering seasonal flu shots (not the H1N1, or swine, flu vaccine) beginning Tuesday - which shows the clinics may not only be cheaper and just as good but quicker to the draw as well.
-- Shari Roan
Photo credit: Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times