By Anne Law
March 10, 2015, 12:00 PM – Walk-in and urgent care clinics are popping up in droves. Whether located in a stand-alone facility or within a retail store, consumers are steadily turning towards the convenience offered by these centers, including lower fees, accessible locations, and drop-in or same-day appointment scheduling.
Often located inside pharmacies and other retail outlets, walk-in medical clinics focus on treating symptoms such as colds or minor wounds; they also conduct physicals, issue prescriptions, and provide vaccinations. Urgent care centers are similar to walk-in clinics, but they specialize in treating noncritical emergencies.
The clinics are often used by young adults or parents of children, as opposed to older adults who tend to require regular care for chronic conditions. Most use the centers when appointments are needed in a hurry, such as for a sick child or during nontraditional hours when regular doctors’ offices are closed.
To fight the growing competition from such clinics, many physicians (especially pediatricians) are adding evening and weekend hours and employing nurse practitioners to increase appointment availability. Physicians argue that patients benefit more from the continuity and comprehensiveness of care offered by traditional doctors’ offices.
Retail clinics such as CVS MinuteClinics and Walgreens Healthcare Clinics typically charge $60-$100 for a minor injury or illness visit. Both CVS and Walgreen are working furiously to add new clinics within their respective pharmacy locations. Wal-Mart is also expanding its network of in-store clinics and recently announced that it will only charge $40 per visit.
Some retailers open clinics through partnerships with medical centers or companies that specialize in clinic operations, such as Walgreen’s partnership with Take Care Health Services. Other walk-in and urgent care clinics are operated solely by hospitals or medical groups looking to offset lost income from emergency room or physician practice visits.
Walk-in clinics cut prices by staffing with nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician’s assistants (PAs) instead of doctors. The clinics also see large patient volumes and only treat low-complexity ailments. NPs and PAs can diagnose conditions and prescribe medications and are typically overseen by remotely located consulting physicians. Proponents of walk-in clinics assert that the use of NPs and PAs not only cuts medical expenses but also helps abate physician shortages experienced in some regions of the US.
Urgent care centers, on the other hand, are often staffed by physicians, as well as PAs and NPs. Such centers are also growing in popularity as health care providers seek to offer alternatives to high-cost hospital-based emergency care. Worksite clinics and outpatient surgery centers are also experiencing growth.
The number of consumers who use retail clinics increased from about 1.5 million in 2007 to some 10 million in 2012, according to the Baltimore Sun, and the Convenient Care Association estimates that there are some 1,900 clinics in the US. About 3 million patients use some 9,000 US urgent care centers per year, according to the Urgent Care Association.
Modern health consumers are increasingly focused on reducing out-of-pocket expenses and accessing high-quality, efficient care. Existing physician practices must adapt to shifting consumer expectations. Emerging providers that focus on cost and convenience of care have a competitive advantage.