It's Walmart's World...You Just Practice In It

Americans' use of medical clinics based in retail settings has risen 10-fold since 2007, and the number of patient visits to these quick-stops has soared, prompting a number of major hospital systems to get into the game.

A national study by the RAND corporation, based on insurance data from 13.3 million people, indicates that the number of visits to quickie clinics jumped from 0.6 per 1,000 insured members in 2007 to 6.5 per 1,000 in 2009. In absolute numbers, 3.8 million of the total 13.3 million people--nearly 29%--had visited quickie clinics at least once in the 2-year period from 2007-2009.

The preference for retail-based clinics did not seem to correlate with availability of primary care doctors in a given region or with income level. The main driver, the report says, is convenience. Retail clinics deliver fast, and people value their time.

There's also an economic incentive. Retail based clinics offer basic services at prices 40% lower, on average, than the prices for comparable services in a physician's office, and 80% lower than comparable services in an emergency room.

The most common conditions treated in retail settings are upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, ear infections, flu, and conjunctivitis, the RAND report notes.

In a clear illustration of the old addage, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," some of the nation's biggest hospital systems are jumping into the retail medicine game. Emory HealthCare, the state of Georgia's largest hospital group, announced earlier this fall that it is partnering with CVS' MinuteClinic. Emory's move follows Mayo Clinic's decision to set up shop in the Mall of America. 

Never a company to be outdone, Walmart announced on National Public Radio earlier this month that it "seeks to dramatically ... lower the cost of healthcare while maintaining or improving outcomes and ... expand access to high quality health services by becoming the largest provider of primary healthcare services in the nation."

The company's goal is to become the dominant player in retail clinics by offering primary care visits for under $30. That, combined with the convenience of on-site pharmacy....not to mention all those blue light specials....could have major appeal for many Americans, especially as the recession slogs on.