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Walk-in Health: Let's Get Clinical

OK, every supermarket retailer who has a walk-in medical clinic in their stores, raise their hand.

Good. Now keep your hands raised if you’ve seen a big increase in the number of patients using your clinic.

No surprise there – not one person dropped their arm. Chances are anyone with a clinic will be seeing higher patient counts for some time to come, as families grappling with the one-two punch of skyrocketing health insurance costs and record numbers of layoffs are passing the doctor’s office and heading straight to the supermarket, mass merchandiser and drug store, where these less-expensive, walk-in clinics are located.

The whole phenomenon of clinics got off to a strong start about three years ago, hit some snags and growth-related problems, and backed off for a bit. Now there are lines and waiting times in the more popular clinics that rival any regular doctor’s office.

No wonder. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 46 million Americans are currently without any kind of health insurance. A study quoted in a Reuters story predicts the number of uninsured Americans could jump to more than 65 million in 10 years.

Investors are noticing. A story in the June issue of SmartMoney magazine profiles some of the leading clinic operators in the supermarket channel — MinuteClinic, Take Care Clinic, The Little Clinic and RediClinic — and even rates them on their level of service (I should also mention the issue includes a brief Q&A with Hugh Grant — not the pompous actor but the CEO of Monsanto).

Of course, the tough economy doesn’t mean people are going to swarm healthcare alternatives like clinics. Some media accounts examining the situation note that many unemployed families are ignoring medical issues and hoping for the best. But with fees significantly cheaper than even a primary care physician, clinics are being looked at as a viable alternative.

The key going forward is to keep them looking attractive, moderately priced and convenient (read: no long waits!). For better or worse, it would seem the customer base is already here.