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June 9th, 2009Health Care in a Hurry

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by Angie C. Marek

Ever get knocked in the shins by a shopping cart while you’re waiting for a medical treatment? These days, it’s becoming more of a distinct possibility. Retail health clinics are quietly sprouting up around the nation at local drugstores and supermarkets, often tucked in a corner just past the mouthwash and Flintstones Vitamins.

With the battered economy putting more pressure on people’s ability to cover health costs, and the ranks of primary-care physicians dwindling, analysts say these clinics could become a nifty niche for U.S. drugstores (CVS pharmacy, Walgreens), supermarkets (Kroger, Cub Foods) and big-box chains (Wal-Mart, Target), which have shoehorned about 1,100 of them into stores. Indeed, while their growth has slowed lately, the number of clinics shot up tenfold between 2006 and 2008 alone, drawing nearly four times as many customers over the same time period.

One major drawing card, of course, is price: They’re cheaper than doctors. (A handful of store-based clinics are staffed by physicians; more typically, it’s nurse-practitioners, masters-educated nurses with the ability in most states to write prescriptions.) The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions recently found that a typical clinic visit costs between $50 and $75, compared with $55 to $250 for a physician. One clinic even recently announced that it would waive sick-visit fees through 2009 for anyone who can prove that they are both unemployed and uninsured.

The main reason people go this route, though, is to save time. With names like MinuteClinic and Curaquick, these facilities promise vaccines, simple screenings and treatment for routine illnesses, like ear infections or pinkeye, with Jiffy Lube speed and convenience. In fact, while most doctors still live by the 9-to-5 credo, retail clinics offer evening and weekend hours that work better with Americans’ hectic schedules. And most take major insurance.

Still, despite promises of shorter waits, some clinics can have long lines or such strict treatment limitations that patients often leave frustrated. Physicians have raised concerns about whether store clinicians can know enough about their patients’ medical histories with such brief contact, especially those with multiple chronic conditions, like diabetes and depression.

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