We have followed the progress of Walgreens as the drugstore chain integrates health clinics into its stores as one example of what appears to be a growing trend throughout the drugstore industry. But it’s still not clear how these clinics will fit into the mix of healthcare offerings.

Walgreens now has 356 in-store clinics, and other drugstore chains are more than catching up: CVS has about 588 CVS “MinuteClinics,” and Wal-Mart includes 143 clinics across some of its stores nationwide. The consulting firm Merchant Medicine estimates that there are almost 1,400 in-store health clinics in the United States.

Recently, National Public Radio and Truven Health Analytics conducted a poll of consumers, and found that:

  • Two-thirds of people would try an in-store clinic, while about half said they were aware of a clinic near them.
  • Eighty percent of people who tried a clinic were happy with the experience.
  • Most consumers went to a clinic to treat a cold or minor illness, or to receive an immunization.

Why are these clinics popular? The reasons could be a warning shot to physicians and other providers. Although most people who used the clinics also had “regular” doctors, the consumers reported that the clinics were cheaper, more accessible than a doctor’s office, and provided the “perceived” same quality care as that received from a physician.

While Rand Corp. and other studies found that clinics indeed are 80 percent cheaper than an emergency room and half the price of a doctor’s office visit, the clinics could cause headaches for doctors and patients:

  • Patients who try clinics are less likely to visit a doctor the next time they get sick. Since clinics don’t have patient records or a regularly scheduled provider, there’s no provider-patient relationship.
  • Clinics aren’t staffed by doctors—usually a nurse practitioner or physician assistant sees customers. Serious or chronic problems could easily be overlooked.
  • Consistency could become a problem—some in-store clinics could over-prescribe drugs, and in extreme cases, certain free-standing clinics were found to be “pill mills” in disguise, illegally selling narcotics and painkillers.

There’s no doubt that the consumer revolution in healthcare is demanding more access at a more reasonable cost, but are in-store clinics the solution? Right now, less than one percent of outpatient care is handled through such facilities. But as they grow, there will have to be a good, secure fit within the overall healthcare delivery system.

What do you think: Do in-store clinics have a rightful place in healthcare delivery? Or are they undermining physicians and other providers, and possibly putting patients at risk? What other solutions incorporate quality care, accessibility and low cost?