The rise of retail healthcare: What it means for traditional primary care practices

Doctor with patient
Retail clinics typically trade ongoing doctor-patient relationships for convenience.

Retail healthcare continues to expand, raising questions about how much of a threat such clinics pose to traditional and independent primary care practices.

Clinics providing same-day urgent care and other basic medical services have proliferated in recent years, drawing the attention of major retailers.

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As the model has begun to mature, the MinuteClinic franchise run by CVS has announced an expansion into Target, following the sale of Target’s in-house pharmacy franchise to CVS, and the retail giant Walmart has begun a pilot with QuadMed. Stephen C. Schimpff, M.D., points to these movements as the latest warning shot across the bow of primary care physicians, noting that the majority of consumers using retail medical services already have their own primary care physician.

Speed and convenience are at the core of retail clinics’ appeal. Schimpff cited expanded coverage under the Affordable Care Act and a concomitant shortage of new physicians as additional drivers of the expansion in the number of retail healthcare outlets.

In order to provide convenience, however, the model has tended to trade off the deeper, longer-term relationships available to patients who see their primary care physician on a regular basis. Being open for extended hours may benefit patients, but it can produce trouble with workforce retention, and despite their relatively clear pricing policies, the increased number of people seeking out care has actually driven health spending up overall.

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Walmart’s venture into the space “will be more like a full-service primary care office staffed by nurse practitioners with PCP backup,” wrote Dr. Schimpff, suggesting a step-change might be coming to the level of competition retail clinics offer primary care practices.

That could put more pressure on primary care practices to implement technologies or processes that will improve the patient experience in their offices, providing the convenience patients crave alongside the relationship-based care retail clinics have—so far—been unable to provide.