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Retail clinics aren’t saving money as initially hoped

 Gautam Gupta receives an influenza shot from Nurse Practitioner Ray Grigorio in the MinuteClinic at the CVS/pharmacy on January 6, 2014 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again, there’s a ton of money to be made if you can figure how to lower overall healthcare spending. Enter so-called minute clinics, the nearly 2,000 retail health care offices you find in big box stories and pharmacies.

The hope is patients would head to Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens or CVS, rather than the more expensive doctor’s office or ER. And while that’s happening a bit, it’s not enough to offset all the new people coming in to the clinics who until now had just stayed home and suffered through their illness, according to a study in Health Affairs out Monday.

Rand researcher Dr. Ateev Mehrotra said a minute clinic is to healthcare what an iPhone is to email.

“Because it’s so convenient for me to check my email on my iPhone, I check it a lot. Way more than I may need to,” he said.

Mehrotra, one of the authors of a study and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said thanks to the rise of all these clinics, folks with a cold, the flu or a sore throat are getting care instead of staying home.

That may improve their health, Mehrotra said, but does little to save money long-term. 

“If this was a study showing that more people are getting mammograms and colon cancer screening, I’d be excited and happy, this would be great,” he said. “The rub here is the types of care that’s being provided. Is this high value care that we are providing,” he said.

It’s difficult to say from this report, given some of the data is a few years old and looks just at commercially insured patients.

Dr. Andrew Sussman, head of MinuteClinic for CVSHealth, said the same convenience that makes it easy for someone to deal with a cold also helps a newly insured patient get care for their diabetes.

“We see a lot of people who their MinuteClinic visit is their first entry into the healthcare system. We refer them to physicians for follow-up. So we can get the patients the healthcare that they need,” he said.

It would be nice to draw a definitive conclusion on minute clinics, something that’s not happening based on this research. But what is a little clearer, said Harvard economist Katherine Baicker, is that insurers who look to these clinics to save money may have to re-think that strategy.

“People had hoped that by making retail clinics available, that we’d see a big reduction in emergency department use. And we just haven’t seen that,” she said.

Baicker says rather than worrying about minute clinic visits, insurers could get a lot more bang for the buck if they figured out why people are still showing up in the ER even when they don’t have to.

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