Earlier this month, Wal-Mart dropped a bombshell on the health care industry. A memo from the retail giant obtained by National Public Radio revealed that the company would seek partners to help it dramatically . . . lower the cost of health care . . . by becoming the largest provider of primary health care services in the nation.
Thats great news for American consumers. Retail health clinics like those operated by Wal-Mart and its peers represent crucial components of our nations drive to expand access to affordable health care.
Wal-Mart already operates about 140 retail clinics. Nationwide, there are now more than 1,000 such clinics, where consumers can get a variety of treatments for common ailments like colds or ear infections for less than the cost of a visit to the doctors office.
Not everyone supports the rapid expansion of retail clinics. Some doctors, for instance, question whether the nurse practitioners and physicians assistants that treat most patients at the clinics are equipped with the proper tools and skills to deliver high-quality care.
Their fears are generally unfounded. Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and RAND Institute researcher, examined the comparative quality of treatment at retail clinics in a 2009 study for Annals of Internal Medicine.
The results? Were not seeing any differences in the quality of care thats provided by retail clinics compared to doctors offices and emergency departments, Mehrotra told the American College of Physicians.
Its no wonder that patient satisfaction with retail clinics is over 90%.
Concerns about retail clinics quality might just serve as cover for doctors opposition to new competition. But the facts indicate that doctors shouldnt worry about losing patients.
Retail clinics largely service people who dont have regular healthcare providers. A 2008 study in Health Affairs found that nearly two-thirds of visitors to retail clinics had no primary care physician.
The same study concluded that retail clinics were likely to provide only basic services. According to the report, About 90% of the visits to retail clinics were for 10 simple acute conditions and preventive care: upper respiratory infections, sinusitis, bronchitis, sore throat, immunizations, inner ear infections, swimmers ear, conjunctivitis, urinary tract infections, and either a screening test or a blood test.
By contrast, just 18% of visits to physicians offices and only 12% of visits to emergency rooms were motivated by these ailments.
These statistics imply that primary care physicians and retail clinics provide complimentary services. Patients with common, easy-to-treat illnesses tend to utilize retail clinics. Those with more complex needs, such as managing chronic conditions like diabetes, are more likely to see conventional doctors.
This division of labor works well for both patients and physicians. At retail clinics, patients dont have to wait for appointments and can receive care when its convenient for them. Meanwhile, overtaxed primary care doctors dont have to waste valuable appointment time diagnosing colds and can instead apply their expertise to more complicated cases.
The American Academy of Family Physicians projects that the country will be short 40,000 family doctors by 2019. By 2025, the shortage could reach 150,000 doctors, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Retail health clinics could help stave off those daunting possibilities by providing patients with additional treatment options.
Further, retailers could also help drive healthcare costs down. Wal-Mart is famous and maybe even notorious for its low prices. The discounter might just be able to bring some of its cost-cutting expertise to bear on the American healthcare sector. Other discount stores and pharmacies with retail health clinics will no doubt push Wal-Mart and each other to do the same.
Americas primary care system is ailing, beset by a shortage of providers and costs that are rapidly growing unaffordable. Retail health clinics can help address both problems. We should welcome them with open arms.