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Let's Get Clinical: Walk-In Infirmaries Can Work

Let's Get Clinical: Walk-In Infirmaries Can Work

Nearly 46 million Americans are currently without any kind of health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those who have coverage are shelling out even more of their earnings. A report by Families USA found that families are paying an additional $1,000 to cover their annual premiums — and that money is going to cover the uninsured.

That scenario perfectly captures the vicious cycle the nation has found itself in. It's a situation that won't likely improve anytime soon, given the current economic climate. In fact, a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicts the number of uninsured Americans could jump to more than 65 million within 10 years.

As Congress prepares to debate President Obama's landmark health care reforms, the day-to-day burden of managing costs continues to take its toll on the pocketbook.

Interestingly, one of the places Americans have found relief is in the supermarket, mass merchandiser and drug store. Here, they find staff dietitians, store tours, free screenings and access to health information. Indeed, food stores have become effective wellness resources for the prevention-minded consumer, people looking to lower their health care costs by not getting sick in the first place.

Those who are sick also have options in the supermarket channel: Walk-in clinics. These less-expensive, convenient health care outlets are enjoying new life during the recession, and investors are noticing. A story in this month's issue of SmartMoney magazine profiles some of the leading clinic operators in the retail food segment — MinuteClinic, Take Care Clinic, The Little Clinic and RediClinic — and even rates them on their level of service. The article notes that “analysts say these clinics could become a nifty niche for U.S. drug stores, supermarkets and big-box chains, which have shoehorned about 1,100 of them into stores.”

Besides location, the clinics also provide more convenient hours (nights and weekends) and fees that are significantly cheaper than even a primary care physician (clinics are typically staffed by nurse practitioners). They also accept just about the same number of insurance carriers (for those who have policies) as atraditional physician.

Of course, the tough economy doesn't mean people are going to swarm health care alternatives like clinics. For one thing, there's only so much a clinic can do, and there are lines and waiting times in the more popular locations that rival any regular doctor's office. Then, there are the media accounts noting that many unemployed families are simply ignoring medical issues and hoping for the best.

Nevertheless, the emergence of these small health outposts in what was once a fairly rigid and stratified health care system is cause for optimism. It's even better that they're populating supermarkets and other food stores. The key going forward is to keep them looking attractive, moderately priced and convenient (no long waits!). For better or worse, it would seem the customer base is already here.

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