Do retail health clinics complement or compete with primary care providers?

Although retail health clinics are cheap, convenient, and associated with high levels of patient satisfaction, there's still some confusion about their role in the healthcare system.

Do those clinics within a larger retail store complement or compete with primary-care physicians?

In the ongoing debate about the role of retail health clinics in the healthcare system, some contend that they pose a threat to the financial viability of primary-care practices by treating the latter's most profitable patients, according to a recent RAND report.

Others argue that retail clinics could drive primary-care revenue up by generating referrals to practices and by letting physicians focus on sicker patients with more complex needs who generate higher reimbursement.

In their recommendations, the RAND researchers seem to side with those who see retail clinics as less of a rival and more of a complement to existing care. The report calls on federal policymakers to design policies and programs to incentivize care coordination and the transfer of information between providers; identify ways to improve access and quality in other healthcare settings based on the retail clinic experience; and ensure federal policies and standards apply to retail clinics.

Because retail clinic services cost less per episode than urgent care centers, emergency departments and primary care providers, they could help cut overall health system spending if patients chose to go to retail clinics over more expensive sites.

While not much data has been collected on retail clinics, the RAND study notes that the heaviest users of retail clinics tend to be younger adults, minority families and families with children.

Not surprisingly, patients who visit clinics are less likely to have an established relationship with a primary-care provider. Only four in 10 say they have a PCP, compared with 80 percent of the general population. Estimates for the share of retail clinic users who are uninsured range from 16 to 27 percent.
To learn more:
- read the full RAND report on the policy implications of the use of retail clinics
- here's the summary

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