Retail clinics give similar care, cheaper: U.S. study

CHICAGO Mon Aug 31, 2009 5:23pm EDT

A Take Care Nurse Practitioner treats a patient at the Take Care Health Clinic in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, March 2007. REUTERS/Take Care Health Systems/Handout

A Take Care Nurse Practitioner treats a patient at the Take Care Health Clinic in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, March 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Take Care Health Systems/Handout

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Clinics in drug stores provide care for minor ailments on par with, or better than, other medical facilities at significantly lower costs, according to a study released on Monday.

The study, published in the September edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine, surveyed data on 2,100 patients treated for middle ear infections, sore throats and urinary tract infections at retail clinics.

The quality of care offered at the in-store clinics was in line with doctors' offices and urgent care centers and slightly better than at emergency departments, Dr. Ateev Mehrotra of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Rand research institute and colleagues found.

There are about 1,200 in-store clinics in the United States, a number that has risen steadily since the first such clinic opened in 2000. The clinics have already served more than 3.5 million patients, according to the Convenient Care Association, an industry group.

Patients are seeking lower-cost healthcare as prices and insurance premiums rise. Clinic operators have been trying to position themselves as fast, cheaper alternatives that can work in concert with traditional medical facilities.

Healthcare reform is at the center of President Barack Obama's political agenda but Congress is debating details of how to provide insurance to more Americans.

"We need to continue to examine retail medical clinics as they grow in number, but the results we have seen thus far suggest they provide high-quality care in a convenient and cost-effective fashion," said Mehrotra.

At most clinics, nurse practitioners treat minor ailments, perform immunizations and do routine exams such as back-to-school sports physicals. Insured patients often have visits covered in line with coverage for visits to doctors.

The study was based on data from HealthPartners enrollees who visited Minute Clinic locations in Minnesota between 2005 and 2006 and compared their results with others who visited traditional medical facilities.

The average cost for treatment at clinics was $110, including the evaluation, pharmacy, laboratory and other costs. The average cost was $156 at an urgent care facility, $166 at a doctor's office and $570 at an emergency department.

The study found no evidence to support concerns such as clinics providing a lower quality of care or overprescribing antibiotics. However, it did show that a smaller proportion of high-risk patients received urine cultures at retail clinics compared with other settings.

And the researchers noted that the patients in their study had health insurance, while up to a third of people in the United States who use such clinics do not have insurance.

Minute Clinic is owned by CVS Caremark Corp, while rival Walgreen Co operates hundreds of clinics under the Take Care name. Other companies run clinics inside stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and grocery stores.

Funding for the study was provided by the California Health Care Foundation and a career development award from the National Center for Research Resources, part of the National Institutes of Health.

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl; Editing by Maggie Fox and Tim Dobbyn)

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