LOS ANGELES – If you thought it was hard getting a doctor’s appointment now, just wait until 30 million more Americans join the line.
By 2020, the U.S. faces an estimated shortage of 40,000 primary-care doctors with no way to remedy that in just a few years.
As a result, more consumers may soon find themselves getting their checkups and help in managing their high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes at the local pharmacy or Wal-Mart as the Affordable Care Act extends health insurance to 30 million people and puts unprecedented strain on an already fragile network of primary care.
Pharmacy giant CVS Caremark Corp., Target Corp. and other retailers are aiming to help alleviate the doctor shortage with hundreds of walk-in clinics run by nurses to treat ear infections and other routine ailments and increasingly help people suffering from chronic illnesses.
These companies, after struggling to turn a profit from these clinics for the last decade, are now eager to capitalize on an influx of newly insured patients.
“People could have long wait times to see a doctor as the federal law gets implemented in 2014, and that will drive more interest in these retail clinics,” said Ateev Mehrotra, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank.
Experts say it remains to be seen whether more clinics at the workplace or close to home just create more unnecessary care that drives the nation’s $2.6 trillion medical tab even higher.
There are also concerns that a proliferation of these clinics will undermine efforts in the health care overhaul to better coordinate care, particularly for patients whose conditions are among the most complex and expensive to treat.
These clinics are already popular with consumers who like the idea of strolling in for care with no appointment seven days a week. They are typically small operations adjacent to the pharmacy where one nurse practitioner may see patients and handle billing. There are no doctors on site.
Most health insurers consider these clinics an in-network visit, so people are responsible for their standard co-payment, and the uninsured may pay $70 to $90 for a visit.
There are more than 1,350 in-store clinics nationwide, according to research firm Merchant Medicine, and that number could top 3,000 by 2016.
CVS MinuteClinic, which is the biggest retail clinic chain with nearly 600 locations, plans to open 100 clinics a year. Rival Walgreen Co. has more than 350 Take Care Clinics. Wal-Mart has nearly 150 in-store clinics, and Target is opening nine more this week, raising its total to 53.
Studies by Rand found that these clinics provide care at costs that are 30 percent to 40 percent less than similar care provided at a physician’s office and that the care for routine illnesses was of similar quality.
Catherine Dower, a health care researcher at the University of California-San Francisco, said these clinics may find it harder to maintain that track record as they expand beyond their limited menu of services.
“Nurse practitioners can do a fine job managing many chronic conditions, but if someone has a more complex problem, they might need to refer to a doctor,” Dower said. “There are pros and cons to expanding the care retail clinics offer.”
Some physicians still aren’t sold. The American Academy of Family Physicians endorsed several clinic chains in 2007 that adhered to certain principles on patient care.
Glen Stream, a family physician in Spokane, and the group’s president, said that endorsement was canceled after retail clinics began offering more services for the chronically ill that the group felt should be handled by physicians and not the clinics.
“That crossed the line,” Stream said.
Andrew Sussman, president of CVS MinuteClinic, said his clinics don’t intend to replace people’s primary-care physician, but rather help keep patients healthy between doctor visits. He also notes that about half the patients seen at walk-in clinics don’t have a primary-care physician.
CVS gives every patient a printout of their medical record when they leave and offers to send information electronically to their physician.
“We collaborate with physicians in many ways to close the loop,” Sussman said. “We can be an important point of entry into the traditional health care system.”