Nonphysician Clinicians Supply of Medical Services

The pros and cons of retail clinics

Aaron Caroll does a nice job summarizing these viewpoints in his article in the N.Y. Times’ Upshot:

Researchers for a study published in the American Journal of Medical Quality talked to patients who sought out care at retail clinics. Patients who had a primary care physician, but still went to a retail clinic, did so because their primary care doctors were not available in a timely manner. A quarter of them said that if the retail clinic weren’t available, they’d go to the emergency room.

It’s understandable why physicians’ groups might be opposed to retail clinics. Above and beyond the obvious economic loss when a patient goes elsewhere, many primary care physicians correctly point out that retail clinics often lack the knowledge and experience that come from continuity of care…The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians and The American Medical Association have all released policy statements or guidelines that oppose, or at least advise, that use of retail clinics be restricted.

Are the doctors right?  On average, the clinics do a pretty good job according to a study by Mehrotra et al. (2009).

Overall costs of care for episodes initiated at retail clinics were substantially lower than those of matched episodes initiated at physician offices, urgent care centers, and emergency departments ($110 vs. $166, $156, and $570, respectively; P < 0.001 for each comparison). Prescription costs were similar in retail clinics, physician offices, and urgent care centers ($21, $21, and $22), as were aggregate quality scores (63.6%, 61.0%, and 62.6%) and patient’s receipt of preventive care (14.5%, 14.2%, and 13.7%) (P > 0.05 vs. retail clinics).

Carroll rightly points out, however, that retail clinics may increase health care cost.  Although cost per visit are lower for retail clinics, they are much more convenient than a doctors visit and are likely to induce more visits.  This is not  a bad thing if patients were forgoing care because physician office’s inconvenient hours were a barrier.

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