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Retail clinics offer convenient healthcare

They're already in Northern California, and they'll be coming here soon: medical clinics in drug stores. These mini-clinics offer a host of services with no appointment necessary.

Retail clinics offer convenient healthcare

They're already in Northern California, and they'll be coming here soon: medical clinics in drug stores. These mini-clinics offer a host of services with no appointment necessary.

Some say retail clinics are an idea whose time has come. But others aren't so sure. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

So you want to see your doctor, eh? Well, get in line.

At North Coast Family Medical Group in Encinitas, three full-time schedulers work the phones.

If you have an urgent problem, they can probably squeeze you in in a day or two. Otherwise, you'll likely have to wait a few weeks or more.

North Coast's Dr. Jim Hay says he's sorry about that.

Hay: "I wish patients could get in right away every time. I think patients, people in general, want something that we're not able to deliver very well right now. Instant access."

Hay argues it's not for lack of trying.

Hay: "For most primary physicians, we're like hamsters on a wheel. We're so busy turning to try and keep up, that's it hard for us to then see somebody when they want to be seen, right then."

That's where retail medical clinics come in.

Kaufmann: "We're located in shopping centers with good parking availability, close to residences, and open nights, after work, and on weekends."

Paul Kaufmann is president of WellnessExpress. Over the past few months, his company has opened six mini-clinics in Northern California. They operate inside Long's Drug Stores.

Kaufmann says the clinics aren't urgent care centers, and don't treat children under two or people on Medicare. Still, Kaufmann says the clinics can handle a laundry list of medical problems.

Kaufmann: "Acne, athlete's foot, burns, insect bites, skin infections, sunburns, sinus infections, sore throats, swimmer's ears, back and neck pain, muscle strains."

WellnessExpress clinics are staffed by nurse practitioners, who are able to consult with doctors by phone.

Kaufmann says for most of the ailments people see an MD for, nurse practitioners provide the same level of care.

Dr. Jim Hay agrees. But he says the fact that the clinics operate without a physician on site worries him.

Hay: "Does the person like a nurse practitioner, always recognize the difference between the cough that's a bronchitis, and the cough that's pneumonia or cancer? And while they are pretty good about that, when you have constant physician supervision, it is more likely than that more difficult case isn't gonna get missed."

And Hay has another concern.

Retail clinics are designed to treat a person one time for a particular illness.

Hay says doctors offer a more comprehensive approach.

Hay: "When someone comes in for episodic care, we take that as an opportunity to then look at, well, what else are their needs? Do they need a physical exam, is it time for their blood sugar to be checked, do they need other things that we need to follow up on?"

In response, Paul Kaufmann says WellnessExpress clinics play a different role in the medical business.

Kaufmann says in this 24/7 world, the clinics provide patients with something they just can't get from most doctors: quick, convenient care. And he says the proof's in the pudding.
Kaufmann: "We've seen upwards of six-thousand patients in the few months we've been in operation, with 100 percent patient satisfaction. We know that we've saved more than ten people's lives as a result of people coming to the clinic."

That may be so. But not everyone is sold on the idea of going to a retail clinic.
North County resident Cecelia Kent says she'd rather not.

Kent: "I like to go to my own doctors and the doctors who know me and know my medical history. If I should have an emergency then I will go to the hospital. But I will not go to a Wal-Mart nurse and find out what is wrong with me, no."

Nonetheless, retail clinics are growing fast. Just last week, drug store giant CVS announced it was buying MinuteClinic, which operates 83 outlets in ten states. The company plans to more than triple the number of its clinics over the next few months.
And WellnessExpress has its eyes on ten Long's Drugs stores in the San Diego area. Paul Kaufmann says he hopes to open the first retail clinic here by the end of the year.
Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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