Since the novel coronavirus outbreak, it’s not surprising to drive by a WalMart parking lot to see a large crowd of cars. No, it’s not another sale. It’s the consumer giant’s retail health clinic doubling as a COVID-19 drive-through testing site and delivering on its promises to deliver convenient care to healthcare consumers.
This scene is unfolding across the country and in more than just WalMart locations. CVS Health, which has notably rebranded itself to serve a more holistic health experience, is also opening up drive-through COVID-19 testing sites near its locations and in community-based care sites to help expand access to care for traditionally marginalized patient populations.
Walgreens, Kroger, Rite Aid, and Target all also boast at least one drive-through testing site.
“They’re definitely playing a role in widespread testing location, whether or not they’re within those clinics themselves,” said Dennie Kim, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and an expert on healthcare delivery and reform.
“This is because of their footprint, the infrastructure they have as far as the brick and mortar stores and the massive parking lots,” Kim told PatientEngagementHIT. “That enhances their ability to provide things like drive-through testing, and to set up these tents where folks can come in and they can meet with a clinician and get testing done if necessary.”
There is a change afoot in healthcare, sparked in no small part by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, leaders across the care continuum have said. For the retail clinic industry, that changing tide doesn’t mean a pivot.
Instead, the retail industry is finally falling in lockstep with the mission is has born for years: providing patients with a convenient place to receive care and another check on their to-do lists.
Since retail health clinics came on the market in about 2000, they have sought to fill one sole purpose: making it easier for patients to access low-acuity care. By putting the health clinic, mostly staffed by advanced practice providers, inside the very store the patient might grab a prescription or an over-the-counter medication was the next step in consumerizing healthcare.
In the nearly twenty years since they were first seen, retail health clinics have become more common, although not without their hiccups. Industry leaders have questioned whether these alternative care access sites are truly cost efficient because the convenience factor perhaps compel patients to access care for symptoms they may have otherwise rode out.
But between the ubiquity of retail health clinics — there are thousands across the country — and evolving needs during the coronavirus pandemic, these care sites are starting to find their niche.
“From my vantage point, what I see is that the retail clinics are doing very similar things to what more traditional clinics are doing,” Kim said.
In addition to their drive-through testing, for instance, retail health clinics are also working to triage patients based on the symptoms they are experiencing. Telehealth technology has played a huge role in the retail space just as it has in the traditional medicine space.
“Retail clinics are making a big push to try to do telemedicine and do phone consultations to figure out if patients should be coming into the clinic in person, or if there are things that can be done over the phone,” Kim noted. “Some locations have moved to appointment only, which is different from their traditional model of walk in that appointment.”
And just as retail clinics are adapting to the COVID-19 response, patients are, too. Patients are seeing the connection between their health and their everyday lives now more than ever, and the industry could very well see a long-term spike in patient engagement credited to the pandemic.
That, coupled with the way retail health clinics have functioned during the coronavirus outbreak, could change how these care sites serve patients moving into the future.
“We as the American patient or the American consumer see it as normal to get a flu shot in a non-traditional setting. We’re seeing that shift in how the general population is interacting with the healthcare system,” Kim explained.
Using Kim’s example, getting a flu shot is just something that crops up on someone’s to-do list each September or October. It’s another errand to run, and what better time or place to do it than during a Target trip?
“There’s an enhanced awareness that there are things that simply need to get done. You just find a way to get it done,” Kim pointed out. “That’s where retail clinics have a huge advantage because of how they’re located. They’re located in areas where it’s convenient for the customers, they’re located in places where folks have to go anyway to get their groceries.”
And that’s exactly where retail health clinics can and should continue to grow, even past the COVID-19 pandemic. For as much talk as there is of the potential for retail health clinics to supplement chronic care management or primary care, Kim cautioned that approach could lead to disastrous care delivery fragmentation.
And if there is anything the industry has learned at the hands of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s that fragmentation makes it hard to succeed during a health emergency, he added.
“You don’t want to further fragment the system, so it’s not beneficial for another healthcare system to come in to stand apart from the existing ones that support chronic disease management,” Kim explained. “There’s going to be a real limit, just because of these concerns about patient safety. These concerns about whether or not the level of care or the quality of care is high enough to take care of these more complex patients.”
But nonetheless, the coronavirus outbreak has identified a role for the retail health clinic going forward. These care sites are well-positioned to deliver convenient care, and as consumer relationships with businesses and their health change at the hands of COVID-19, the time could be ripe for the retail clinic to be the place for low-acuity care.
“Where I do see the clinics having a big role in the future though is again going back to this notion that our interactions with the system have changed due to COVID,” Kim stated.
For instance, the telehealth boom that is going to follow the COVID-19 pandemic could be better handled by retail health clinics, Kim said. Telehealth is great for low-acuity care and triaging care access based on symptoms.
And with the multi-state approach that retail health clinics take — patient records for a MinuteClinic in Texas are still easily accessible in Montana — retail health clinics could be better positioned for this than more traditional health systems, at least for low-acuity care.
“Retail clinics represent a fairly well-integrated and a national care network,” Kim concluded. “There are some important advances where retail clinics can become these important bastions for the low-acuity, acute needs. And so I do think that patients are going to become more and more comfortable.”