Since they began in 2000, retail clinics have become a regular fixture in many American pharmacies, supermarkets, and shopping malls. Although some professional medical organizations have spoken out against them, consumers have appreciated the convenience they offer.

A new study by Ateev Mehrotra and Judith Lave, released yesterday by Health Affairs as a Web First article, shows that the number of patient visits grew from 1.48 million in 2006 to 5.97 in 2009. This is a follow-up to an earlier Health Affairs study about retail clinics by Mehrotra, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Lave, a professor of economics in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Health Policy and Management; and coauthors.

The authors drew on deidentified clinic data for 2007–09 from MinuteClinic, Take Care, and Little Clinic, the three largest US retail clinic operators, representing 81 percent of the industry. Their key findings include:

  • A large percentage of retail clinic customers (64.5) do not have a primary care physician; that number increased slightly when compared to the 2000–06 data (61.3 percent). The vast majority of clients (70.5 percent) have insurance (commercial, Medicare, or Medicaid), an increase over 2000–06 (67.1 percent).
  • There was great seasonal variation in the number of visits, with peaks in October and November, primarily because of visits for flu vaccines.
  • A total of 44.4 percent of retail clinic visits occurred when physicians’ offices were likely to be closed, such as weekday evenings or weekends.
  • Comparing the current data with information the authors gathered in their earlier study, the authors found that the proportion of visits made by children under 18 decreased from 26.8 percent during 2000–06 to 22.2 percent during 2007–09. The number of visits by those 65 and older nearly doubled, going from 7.5 percent during 2000–06 to 14.7 percent during 2007–09.
  • The reasons to visit retail clinics changed in the intervening years. During 2000–06, 21.8 percent of visits were for preventive care; that more than doubled during 2007–09, to 47.5 percent. Then percentage of vaccines alone increased from 19.7 percent in the earlier period to 40.8 percent in the more recent years.

“The clinics continue to provide mostly simple acute and preventive care, and they continue to serve a population of patients who do not report having a primary care physician,” concluded the authors. “It will be interesting to track demand at retail clinics after the Affordable Care Act is implemented…if wait times for appointments with primary care physicians increase nationwide, demand for the clinics might increase.”