There are more than 5,750 hospitals in the United States. In 2012, they treated nearly 36 million patients. Millions more were treated on an outpatient basis at the nation’s more than 15,000 urgent care centers and other health care clinics. And a new type of healthcare facility, the retail health clinic, is springing up in big box stores and strip malls. These clinics are used by those seeking vaccinations, diagnoses and treatment of minor ailments and injuries, and physicals for sports or camp. In 2012, Walmart had about 140 in-store clinics, CVS Caremark operated over 500 MinuteClinics, and Walgreens was in charge of 350 Take Care clinics. In addition, regional retail clinics, such as Tennessee’s Doctors Express, are jumping into the market. And the number of retail health clinics is expected to double nationwide by 2016.
Traditionally, hospitals and health clinics have been fierce competitors. However, with the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, a sea change is taking place in the healthcare industry. Around 30 million newly insured people are expected to put overwhelming pressure on hospitals and emergency rooms in the next few years. But according to a recent study by the global consulting firm Accenture: “For stretched hospital operators, the answer may lie in an unexpected place, and one that, until recently, was considered a rival: retail health clinics…. Many [hospitals] are operating at close to full capacity, with little chance of meeting the coming surge in demand. Now, the very clinics once perceived as rivals may represent a key tool for managing patient volume while more conventional health providers focus on higher acuity and more complex treatments.”
In response to the competitions posed by retail health clinics, pediatric and primary care centers are using physician assistants and nurse practitioners to expand their hours and provide greater access. However, Rae Bond, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society warns that patients should not substitute retail health clinics for primary care physicians: “There is huge value in having a standard primary care home, especially for pediatrics. They have your records, they know what your medicine allergies are.” Whatever the case, experts predict the influx of new patients to the healthcare system will create a physician shortage by 2020. There is little doubt that healthcare facilities, from walk-in clinics to traditional hospitals, will see their patient loads increase in the coming years.