Do retail clinics hurt preventive care?

The retail clinic business has grown rapidly over the past several years, driven by a combination of factors such as the physician shortage, lower prices and better cost transparency. But the model is the wrong approach to healthcare, argues a piece in The Atlantic.

Although clinics' drawbacks are not as obvious, they are cause for concern, writes Richard Gunderman, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the radiology department at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

One downside is that they divert patients with less complex, more treatable conditions from hospitals, patients who help keep costs down for the organizations, he says. As these patients flock to retail clinics, the average hospital patient's medical profile involves more complex, expensive treatment.

Staff expertise is another concern, according to Gunderman. Although it makes sense to choose the quickest, easiest option for a mundane problem such as cough or sore throat, these can often be symptoms of more serious problems. Although patients generally obtain a quick fix from a retail clinic, they miss out on the chance to receive counseling and preventive care advice from a primary care physician.

"Every time a patient visits a primary care physician, both parties have the chance to get to know one another better," Gunderman writes. "And that relationship can make a difference in a variety of ways, from making sure the patient's overall care is well-coordinated to ensuring that families have someone they can count on during serious illnesses and even for end-of-life care."

Retail clinics, he concludes, represent a shift in the healthcare model to a "15-minute oil change" model, rather than an approach that uses healthcare to build relationships and make care more comprehensive, and treating patients as patients rather than consumers.

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