Use of retail clinics leads to higher costs.

Seems a bit counter-intuitive doesn’t it?

You’d think that the use of retail clinics like those found in some CVS and Kroger stores and typically staffed by nurse practitioners would be apt to lower total costs. In fact it’s based on this premise that some employers and carriers are encouraging employees to use these clinics by covering more of the cost of the visit.

However, a study recently published in Health Affairs and reported on Tuesday in a California Healthline article indicates otherwise and gave me reason to stop and think. Apparently, according to the study, the added convenience, the lower cost and easier access to care – not having to schedule appointments, deal with doctors’ offices, etc – is leading to a new and increased utilization. The study found that instead of replacing a doctor’s office visit, urgent care or a trip to the ER, 58% of retail clinic visits were for minor conditions that represented a new use of medical services.

According to one of the co-authors of the study, “this challenges the conventional wisdom that retail clinics save the health care system money. The increase in spending from new utilization trumps the savings we saw from replacing doctor visits and the emergency department.”

The Healthline article goes on to report, that the study doesn’t contradict earlier research that found retail clinics provide care that costs 30 to 40 percent less than similar care provided at a physician’s office and that the treatment for routine illnesses was of similar quality. Rather it suggests those savings are more than offset by increased use of medical services.

It’s probably a bit premature to draw conclusions from this one study and discourage the use of retail clinics for minor stuff. However, it’s worth taking note and watching to see if retail clinics really are leading to unnecessary utilization and more costs instead of less.

For a related post on keys to controlling personal health spending go here.