The “minute clinic” has efficiency built into its name, a quick, easy way for people who feel sick — but not that sick — to seek medical treatment without the hassle of making a doctor’s appointment. Early evidence showed that visits to retail clinics embedded in grocery stores, big box stores and pharmacies cost much less than traditional health care, suggesting they could be a way to cut overall spending.
But a new analysis shows that, paradoxically, the rise of the retail clinic has meant a small but significant rise in health care spending. Retail clinics accounted for an additional $14 per person per year, according to a Health Affairs study that examined how people insured by Aetna in 22 cities between 2010 and 2012 used health care. That’s because more than half of the visits to retail clinics for sinus infections or other relatively minor illnesses were driven new utilization — in other words, visits that wouldn’t have happened if the clinics didn’t exist.“The major point of this paper is that a lot of people have said, ‘Hey, they’re 30 to 40 percent cheaper — let’s get people to go to retail clinics and we’re going to save a lot of money for our health care system,'” said Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, who led the study. “That’s the logic, and that logic is missing a key point: when you make something more convenient, people are going to use more of it.”
In a classic case of “if you build it, they will come,” more than 6 million patient visits occur at the 2,000 clinics embedded in pharmacies, grocery stores and big box retailers each year, and the trend looks to be on the rise.