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More pharmacies offer walk-up clinics for minor illnesses
The line to be seen at the Take Care Clinic at Walgreens grows during the lunch hour Wednesday. The Take Care Clinic provides services for upper respiratory problems, strep throat, ear infections and other minor health problems. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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By: Brandee A. Thomas

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It is shortly after noon on Wednesday and Stacy Carlson is in Walgreens waiting for her 5-year-old son’s medical appointment.

Carlson, a Flowery Branch resident, is in-between medical insurance companies and her son, Avery, has an ailment akin to bronchitis. The fact that the Walgreens Take Care Clinic on Shallowford Road in Gainesville is cheaper than a visit to most medical doctors led Carlson to wait for more than a half hour for an appointment.

“I mean, for half the price you can come here, where the regular practitioner would be $135 a visit,” Carlson said.

A recent study by the RAND Corp. found that retail medical care is a growing reality. There are more than 350 Walgreens Take Care clinics in the United States. About 100,000 people visited a CVS MinuteClinic in 2008, according to Holly McDonald, the manger of operations for Minute Clinics on the east side of Atlanta.

Walmart and other retailers have also started working with hospitals to provide similar health care options.

In a down economy, the retail clinic model seems to make sense, according to the RAND study.

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Sept. 1, claimed that the costs for treating acute illnesses at retail clinics were 30 to 40 percent lower than in physicians’ offices or urgent care centers because of lower payments for services and lower rates for laboratory tests.

The RAND study, however, was only conducted in Minnesota among insured patients of only one retail clinic chain.

Gabe Weissman, a spokesperson for Take Care Health Systems, said Take Care opened its first clinic in 2005 with a goal to provide low-cost, convenient health care. Since then, more than 2 million patients have visited the clinics, Weissman said.

“The clinics really can be part of a solution to the health care crisis that’s currently facing the United States,” Weissman said. “From the beginning, access has really been a key part of it, and over 40 percent of our patients are telling us that if it weren’t for Take Care clinics ... they would go to the emergency room, urgent care clinic or wouldn’t be seeking treatment at all.”

Patients can walk into Take Care clinics, now owned by Walgreens, seven days a week; regular visits cost around $65. Visits at CVS MinuteClinics start at $62, McDonald said. When patients arrive, they type their information into a computer kiosk that tells them up front the estimated cost for certain tests, vaccinations and checkups.

Both McDonald and Weissman tout the transparency of prices at their clinics.

“It’s very important in this economy for (patients) to know what their out-of-pocket expense is going to be,” McDonald said.

Aside from the up-front information on cost and wait times, the clinics in Walgreens and CVS also store patients’ medical information electronically, allowing nurses to pull up medical histories for patients who visit clinics in different cities or states.

“Electronic medical records have been a big conversation in the legislation talk that’s going on right now and when you think about electronic medical records and the network of Take Care clinics throughout the country, it really does sort of talk about some interesting opportunities in the world of health care,” Weissman said.

When patients sign in to the electronic kiosks, their names appear on another screen that shows the number of patients waiting ahead of them to see the nurse practitioner, who usually keeps longer hours seven days a week instead of five.

“The accessibility is absolutely really a cornerstone of it,” Weissman said.

And the extended hours, the ability to walk in without an appointment and up-front costs are all reminiscent of the customer service of a retail store. Walgreens even offers to use e-mail to communicate upcoming specials like free health screenings, said Jodi O’Sullivan, Take Care Clinic lead nurse practitioner for the eastern Atlanta region.

“The patient’s experience is really sort of the No. 1 priority — it’s what these Take Care clinics were built around,” Weissman said.

“That’s the hours, that’s the walk-in availability, so it’s not scheduling an appointment on someone else’s schedule, it’s coming in on your own schedule, on your own terms ... at hours that are more convenient to you.”

Clinics like Take Care and the CVS MinuteClinic are run by board-certified nurse practitioners. And while they usually keep more convenient hours, their easily accessible and more cost-friendly services are limited. The clinics do not treat children younger than 18 months old and generally treat only common illnesses.

The American Medical Association’s policy on store-based health clinics requires retail clinics to arrange for nurse practitioners to have direct access and supervision by medical doctors and establish a referral system with other medical practices so they can send patients with more serious conditions to a qualified physician.

“Patients deserve timely access to affordable, high-quality care provided by health care professionals that are appropriately and adequately trained,” said Rebecca J. Patchin, the chairwoman of the American Medical Association, in a statement. “Convenience should never compromise safety.”

But O’Sullivan, who moved from private practice to the retail clinics in 2006, said the medical community has become more accepting of retail clinics in recent years.

“When you’re the brand new thing, you know, the latest, greatest, it’s difficult in the beginning, but it’s been very nice and we are now just kind of part of the community,” O’Sullivan said.

“It was kind of a different concept. That you could get care at your convenience, in your time schedule, in a local pharmacy was a little out of the medical box, but it has grown to be like a staple for the busy mom, the soccer mom and the business guy that can’t stop long enough to go to the doctor.”
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