Research conducted by Kalorama suggests the popularity of retail clinics represents a trend towards newer healthcare models that challenge existing models of care, and which could severely impact hospitals, clinical laboratories, and pathology groups

In recent years, pathologists and medical laboratory managers have watched as retail clinics housed in drug and grocery stores became a go-to service for healthcare customers seeking relief from minor illnesses. However, to market research company Kalorama, retail clinics also are a “game-changer” that could pose a threat to healthcare providers if their growth remains unchecked.

At risk are health systems and office-based physicians, along with the clinical laboratories and pathology groups that serve them. This would happen if patients shy away from primary care doctors in favor of cheaper, faster, medical care. However, as retail clinics expand the services they provide, they also could become an important source of orders for certain types of medical laboratory tests.

Kalorama defines retail clinics as, “healthcare centers that provide basic and preventative care in a retail setting; excluded are crisis and acute care centers; urgent care centers; emergency facilities; and wellness centers.” According to Kalorama’s data, “in 2016, total US retail clinic sales are estimated at more than $1.4 billion, an increase of 20.3% per year from $518 million in 2010.”

This increased use of retail clinics is a mixed blessing. On one hand, easy accessibility, low-wait times, and flexibility combined with lower costs for basic care is a boon for certain patients. On the other hand, this emergent healthcare model requires that traditional healthcare facilities address the impact of retail clinics on traditional practices, patient care, and regulatory standards.

Here are five reasons why retail clinics could threaten traditional healthcare models:

Retail Clinics Disrupt the Normal Healthcare Delivery Environment

Retail clinics are designed for immediate treatment of symptoms and vaccinations, not in-depth examination or long-term healthcare relationships between physician and patient. However, because retail clinics are a convenient low-cost option for patients, they become direct competition for full-service. Why visit a primary care physician (PCP) when you can receive off-hour care at lower prices and with faster wait times?

Based on data from peer-reviewed journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the graph above illustrates the huge growth of retail clinics over just the past 10 years, which is expected to continue. (Image copyright: Accenture Consulting.)

There is a rising fear among PCPs that the quick fix of retail clinic services will translate into poorer overall health for patients who fail to establish permanent long-term healthcare connections. This fear is validated by an American Medical Association (AMA) report that states, “only 39% of retail clinic users report having an established relationship with a primary care physician, which contrasts to about 80% of the general population reporting such a relationship.”

Retail Clinics Increase Competition for Primary Care Practices

Rather than competing with emergency departments, retail clinics directly compete with primary care clinics, according to Kalorama and the AMA. Staffed primarily by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, retail clinics treat symptoms of acute and easily identifiable health issues. There is growing concern that this limits opportunity for patients to receive more comprehensive healthcare that includes identification and treatment of chronic diseases.

And though competition in the healthcare market is good, physicians worry that retail clinics may push smaller stand-alone clinics out of business. The Kalorama report explains that “ultimately, medical practices are businesses that rely upon a steady flow of [patients] for their success.” When primary care facilities close due to loss of patients, it can create immediate healthcare gaps in communities.

Retail Clinics Could Increase Strain on Medical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Kalorama’s data shows that retail clinics could place strain on medical laboratories and pathology practices. The study notes, “retail clinics are becoming relatively large users of point-of-care (POC) tests, clinical chemistry, and immunoassay laboratory tests and vaccines.” Kalorama’s report states, “the combined sales of these three types of products to retail clinics reached $240 million” in 2015, reflecting a 26% per year growth in testing since 2010. Projections from Kalorama suggest further increases in retail clinic test ordering in years to come.

The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) advisory boards, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Commission on Office Laboratory Accreditation (COLA) all have expressed concerns about the rise of retail clinic testing. COLA’s 2017 Spring Newsletter states that the increased use of retail clinics could lead to unnecessary testing, and increasing use of “non-laboratory personnel for laboratory testing.”

The COLA newsletter also warns that pathologists and clinical laboratory managers “should expect to see, over time, a steady increase in the menu of diagnostic testing offered by retail clinics.” COLA suggests that pathologists and laboratory scientists will experience increased demand from retail clinics for their services and expertise, but that because retail clinics often require high-volume, fast-paced testing without the benefit of full clinical laboratories (both in terms of staff and equipment) there is potential for retail clinic testing to fall short of industry standards.

Retail Clinics Fragment Health Records

According to an article in AMA Wire, the AMA House of Delegates (HOD) established guidelines for retail clinics that focus on continuity of medical records and the safeguarding of patient care. The guidelines state that retail clinics “must produce patient visit summaries that are transferred to the appropriate physicians and other healthcare providers in a meaningful format that prominently highlights salient patient information.” The fear, according to the AMA, is that the fragmenting of medical records may bring harm to patients via miscommunication that undermines patient-physician relationships and complicates oversight in treatment plans.

The Kalorama report echoes this sentiment. It states that physicians often take a negative view of retail clinics because of the lack of communication between retail clinics and primary care practices, citing a lack of cooperation or “unwillingness or inability on the part of convenience clinics to share medical information about patients with primary care providers.”

Retail Clinics Are Expanding Their Reach

Despite the fact that the AMA Council on Medical Services 2017 report on delivery reform recommends that retail clinics limit the scope of their care, expansion of retail clinic services has gone unchecked in many areas according to the Kalorama report. AMA policy states that retail clinics must have a “well-defined and limited scope of clinical services,” and the AMA’s 2017 guidelines state that “retail health clinics should neither expand their scope of services beyond minor acute illnesses … nor expand their scope of services to include infusions or injections.”

As retail clinics open around the country and expand their offerings there is a call for increased regulation of retail clinics to check that growth. COLA states that retail clinics are positioning themselves to play a major role in the delivery of primary care services. And the Kalorama report suggests that the trend towards retail clinic use will continue to rise, creating both challenges and opportunities for providers, clinical laboratories, pathologists, and healthcare policy makers who will be required to address the disruption to their businesses.

-Amanda Warren

Related Information:

Retail Clinics 2017: The Game-Changer in Healthcare

Report 7 of The Council on Medical Service: Retail Health Clinics

COLA’s Insights Spring 2017: The Rise of Retail Medicine

The Advance of the Retail Health Clinic Market: The Liability Risk Physicians May Potentially Face When Supervising or Collaborating with Other Professionals

Primary Care Practice Response to Retail Clinics

Retail Clinics are Poised to Offer More Health Services, Participate in ACOS, and Offer Expanded Menu of Clinical Pathology Laboratory Tests

Retail Clinics Continue to Shape Local Healthcare Markets

More Medical Laboratory Testing Expected as Retail Clinics Change Delivery of Routine Healthcare Services

Top-5 Diagnostics Trends Identified by Kalorama Will Impact In Vitro Diagnostics Manufacturers, Medical Laboratories in 2017

UnitedHealth’s Plans to Build More MedExpress Urgent Care Centers Is a Sign of Strong Consumer Demand and Could Be an Opportunity for Clinical Laboratories