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By Lou Carlozo, dealnews contributor
Bold forecasts about in-store health clinics began in the mid-2000s. The idea is simple and appealing enough: Visiting your local pharmacy or a big-box retailer could be much less expensive (and much more convenient) than trying to make a doctor's appointment or visiting an emergency room.
Yet these newfangled clinics have seen mixed reviews. Though they've experienced steady growth over the years, they continue to face hurdles along the way. Walmart, for example, hasn't expanded as aggressively into this sphere as once planned, and there's still a certain amount of consumer reluctance over the concept. After all, some folks might feel a bit squeamish about getting checked for a fungal infection at the same place where they buy their salad fixings.
So what's in store for these in-store walk-in clinics?
Not every ailment requires a trip to the emergency room, or even to see a doctor, and that's where in-store clinics come in. Typically, these clinics are staffed by physician assistants or nurse practitioners — nurses who have advanced degrees. In-store clinics are designed to treat conditions such as ear infections and strep throat, and provide vaccinations for illnesses such as influenza, tetanus, and pneumonia. They're also viewed as a valuable option in helping to fill the primary care void in some rural areas of the country.
Some in-store clinics also offer physicals for adolescents entering camp or sports leagues. And if you're interested in screenings or monitoring for diabetes, blood pressure, or cholesterol, clinics provide those as well. They can also help provide referrals for area doctors, and some services you might not expect, such as acne treatment.
In-store clinics are classified as "walk-in medicine," so there's no appointment needed. While you might experience a wait time, any doctor's waiting room can be crowded as well. But in this case you also have the convenient option of returning at a less busy time. What's more, many in-store clinics tend to be centrally located, say in a neighborhood pharmacy or supermarket. Plus the staff has more flexibility: doctors who are booked can't accept additional appointments, but even with a long wait time, you'll be seen at an in-store walk-in clinic.
Clinics provide basic health care services at a lower cost than a doctor's, though that might not matter much to you if you have a premium insurance with a low co-pay. But if you don't have insurance, you can still take advantage of the services these health centers offer. Walgreens's Take Care Clinic details exactly how much each procedure costs for a patient without insurance. A blood pressure screening and counseling runs $65, while Hepatitis B series vaccines are $114.99 per dose for a 3-dose series. The Walgreens clinic, like many others, accepts cash, credit cards, and debit cards; members of the Walgreens Prescription Savings Club even get 10% off all Take Care services, though this can't be used with insurance.
According to Merchant Medicine, there are currently 1,427 retail clinics operating in 39 states, up from 1,355 in 2011. The most explosive growth occurred between October 2006 and April 2008, when clinics nearly quadrupled in number from 200 to almost 1,000. Early 2009 and late 2011 saw the growth level off, though about 200 more clinics were added in the last half of 2011.
For the most part, the overall trend of in-store healthcare is slow and steady, though it depends on the retailer. This March 2013, a Chicago Tribune article revealed that Target plans to open three more clinics in the Chicago area alone; those stores are among the 14 new clinics Target will open in the next few months across the country, bringing the total number of Target Clinics to 68. New players such as Safeway are getting into the game, too. Interestingly, Walmart, which had once taken a bullish position on in-store clinics, has experienced sluggish expansion in this area. It operates about 150 clinics in its stores across the U.S — well behind CVS and Walgreens, which itself has 370 Take Care clinics.
But is an in-store clinic visit the right choice for you? Convenience, cost, proximity, and the nature of your health all play roles in making that decision. For the majority of the nation, these clinics have a lot to offer, but as with so many consumer quandaries, the larger issue involves changing habits. So many of us know our doctors well and feel a connection to them, so it might feel strange seeking health care elsewhere.
What say you, dealnews reader? Have you chosen to visit an in-store clinic instead of seeing your GP?