By Dan Alaimo
Would you like a flu shot with that cholesterol test?
The rapid growth of nurse-staffed health clinics in retail stores is getting plenty of attention. In the Feb. 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Richard Bohmer, a family practitioner and a professor at Harvard Business School, said the business model for these clinics is based on fast-food restaurants: limited menu, easy and quick access, comparatively low prices.
While this model may carry a negative connotation in the world of food, it’s exactly what many people are looking for: simple health care needs, such as school sports physicals or a case of strep throat. At one point, people spoke about how such clinics could help meet the needs of low-income and uninsured customers, but the need to make a profit — margin is slim for these operations — requires that they look for payment first.
Still, most welcome this development, and the news reports nationwide would make it seem that there are many more of these clinics than the nearly 300 mentioned by Bohmer. About half of those are MinuteClinics in CVS drug stores. MinuteClinic is owned by CVS, the only retailer to directly participate in this business. They are growing fast, and the California Healthcare Foundation in Oakland has predicted that there will be several thousand by the end of this year, which may be a bit optimistic.
One group that has been critical is physicians, who have expressed worries about the quality and continuity of care provided in these situations. Bohmer spends most of his article building the case that these clinics represent no threat to traditional medical practices.
“The menu of services consistent with their operating model is short, and taking on others would undermine their operations and their customer value proposition,” he wrote. “Consequently, it is unlikely that in their current form they will usurp the core business of primary care practitioners.”
Most of the clinic operators agree with the medical community’s recommendation that they be additive to the health care system, and maintain good relationships with doctors, referring patients as need be.
Meanwhile, this is good for retail, and supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchants have all dabbled with the opportunity. There are also signs that larger medical care providers see the potential in this model, much like banks that have established branches in stores, no matter the profitability. They provide a needed service and get the brand name in a very visible location.
Supermarkets have another way to take advantage of this trend, as it plays directly into the concept of whole-store health that was initiated by the Educational Foundation of GMDC, Colorado Springs, some years ago, and has been gradually implemented through the industry. The idea is that food, pharmacy and customers’ well-being are all tied together, and nowhere more forcefully than in a supermarket. An in-store health clinic adds to this concept, especially if its staff is prepared to counsel patients on matters of nutrition, as well as medicine and therapy.
In-store health clinics are still a small trend, but they present supermarkets with an offering that can let them, to paraphrase the U.S. Army, be all they can be.