Retail Clinics: Are They Adding Costs to the Health Care System?

A recent article from Kaiser Health News asked an interesting question: Are the much applauded and fast growing retail clinics that seem to be popping up on every corner actually increasing costs?

While there is no arguing the fact that stopping into a Walgreens or CVS clinic is much less expensive that going to the ER, the new challenge seems to be keeping people from going to these clinics for every issue they have. According to a study published in the journal Health Affairs, rather than substituting for a physician office visit or trip to the hospital, 58 percent of retail clinic visits for minor conditions represented a new use of medical services. Those additional visits led to an increase in overall health care spending of $14 per person per year. With more than 2,000 in-store clinics nationwide now handling about 6 million patient visits annually, these costs are starting to pile up.

The study doesn’t contradict earlier research that found retail clinics provide care that costs 30 to 40 percent less than similar care provided at a physician’s office and that the treatment for routine illnesses was of similar quality. But it suggests those savings are more than offset by increased use of medical services. For example, in the study, researchers found that much of the new use was for ailments that typically cleared up on their own, such as a fever, cough or runny nose.

While there are no easy answers on how to deal with this issue and no arguing the fact that these clinics are helping people see a nurse at their convenience, the data is beginning to suggest that costs of these clinics may be outweighing the savings.

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