Oliver Wyman recently published a report about the rise of alternative treatment settings, such as retail health clinics, urgent care centers, and telemedicine. Consumers are becoming more familiar with these alternatives, and a fair number are embracing them – even preferring them to traditional modes of care.
I personally agree wholeheartedly with the notion that retail and urgent care settings make sense in certain situations. Not only do they tend to save consumers money (especially those in high deductible health plans), but they also make sense from a comparative advantage perspective. Why should our most skilled providers be tied up taking care of some of the more minor health issues that a nurse practitioner or even a nurse could address, often more cost-effectively and more quickly?
I had a chance to experience both the urgent care and the retail health settings recently, and I have to place myself squarely in the camp of those who are generally pleased with the care received in those settings. In one instance, I used a nearby Minute Clinic when I suspected that a run-of-the-mill cold had progressed into a run-of-the-mill sinus infection. Rather than wait a day to see my doctor (and probably pay more, because I’m in a high-deductible health plan), I decided to go to the local Minute Clinic. The advantages, as I saw them, were that I could be seen conveniently and immediately, and I would probably pay less (although I was admittedly making an educated guess about the cost, as the transparency data didn’t exist for all of my options, which remains a big stumbling block for healthcare consumerism). I had no qualms about using the Minute Clinic option, given that I was pretty sure I knew what was wrong with me and reasonably confident that the providers at the Minute Clinic would be able to confirm it and prescribe medication if appropriate. I also didn’t see the need to tie up my primary care physician’s time on something that seemed pretty routine. I’d rather she had her time available to treat more serious issues – the kinds of things only a doctor with her more advanced training could address.
In sharing my experience with my colleague, Jeff, however, I realized that there is another side to the consumer experience which these alternative settings need to address. Jeff was recently battling strep throat and initially decided to go to a nearby retail health clinic. Once there, however, he changed his mind and opted for an urgent care center instead. Why? Well, his impression of the retail health clinic was that it was “disorganized” and not what he had envisioned. The visual cues of a professional doctors’ office were missing for him – and perhaps even more powerful, the environment and experience didn’t live up to his expectations colored by his retail experiences. For better or worse, our expectations built from the highly consumer-oriented retail world drive our expectations and perceptions when we seek care in an alternative – especially retail – setting.
It will be interesting to see how quickly consumers adopt these alternative care centers. My hunch is that as more cost responsibility falls to the consumer, they will seek out these alternative settings, particularly for those injuries and illnesses that are more minor in nature. They can be the perfect alternative when we need convenience and cost-effectiveness and our injuries and illnesses aren’t life-threatening.