Retail medical clinics offer low-cost care at similar quality to physicians’ offices

A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine has found that “retail clinics provide less costly treatment than physician offices or urgent care centers for 3 common illnesses, with no apparent adverse effect on quality of care or delivery of preventive care.” The 3 illnesses were otitis media, pharyngitis, and urinary tract infection (UTI).

Bloomberg News reports, “Medical clinics found in stores such as CVS Caremark Corp. offer a similar quality of service to physicians’ offices and urgent-care centers, for prices as much as a third less.”

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, noted that such clinics “increased more than 10-fold from 2006 to 2008,” providing care for “a patient population that’s not frequently going to a primary care physician.” For the study, researchers “examined more than 15,000” patients “in Minnesota between 2005 and 2006.”

Researchers found that “the average cost of care at a retail clinic was $110, compared with $166 at doctors’ offices, $156 at urgent-care centers, and $570 at emergency rooms.”

Retail medical clinics “have been roundly criticized by many doctors who say they fear care will be inferior to what is provided in traditional settings,” according to the Los Angeles Times Booster Shots blog.

But, the study showed that there were “no differences … in the quality of care in patient visiting retail clinics compared to doctors’ offices and urgent care centers.”

Notably, “retail clinics performed slightly better than hospital emergency rooms.” The work “also addressed a criticism that people who visit retail clinics might skimp on preventive medical care.”

But, the researchers said that when they compared that aspect “of care in retail clinics, physician offices, urgent care centers, and emergency departments,” they “found little evidence to support” the concern, HealthDay reported.

The study showed that “the standards of care in retail clinics in Minnesota were consistent with accepted medical guidelines for” sore throat, ear infections, and urinary tract infections, “including the frequency and type of lab tests performed and drugs prescribed.”

MedPage Today told their physician readers:

  • Explain to interested patients that some large retail stores, such as Wal-Mart, contain medical clinics that are typically staffed with nurse practitioners, although some may have physicians.
  • Explain that the quality and continuity of care for patients who go to retail clinics has been questioned. This study found that the clinics provided care equivalent to traditonal settings at a relatively low cost.
  • Explain that this was not a randomized trial — patients decided which type of facility they would visit, and their reasons for doing so could have been influenced by the nature of their illness, which in turn would influence the cost of treatment and other outcomes.

Reuters pointed out, “At most clinics, nurse practitioners treat minor ailments, perform immunizations and do routine exams such as back-to-school sports physicals.”

And, of course, unlike most doctor offices, these clinics do not offer after-hours call coverage or in-hospital care. In addition, another question the study did not answer was whether these clinics can safely and effectively address continuity of care for children and adults.  But, for these three urgent care problems, these particular retail clinics provided safe and cost-effective care.

As to whether they will stand up to more complicated problems, or not, stay tuned.

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