Health care clinics all about 'providing patients with the right care, at the right time, at the right cost'
It was a blustery weekend when Shelley Tomalty Scott felt the onset of a sinus infection. So rather than wait until Monday to visit her doctor, she strolled into a health care clinic in her local Jewel-Osco store.
"The physician assistant wrote the prescription, and I walked to the other end of the store to the pharmacy. It cost less than a doctor's visit, and I was able to get on the medication right away," said Tomalty Scott, 56, of Naperville.
The clinic at the Jewel-Osco in north Naperville is one of nine Edward-Elmhurst Walk-in Clinics operated by the suburban hospital group. Encouraged by the response from patients, Edward-Elmhurst plans to open three more walk-in clinics this spring.
Other suburban hospitals are following suit, most notably Downers Grove-based Advocate Health Care, which recently announced that it will purchase and operate 56 in-store clinics inside area Walgreen's stores.
And Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights has reported success operating an Easy Access clinic in a Jewel-Osco in Palatine.
It's all part of a national trend in health care, with patients looking for convenience and lower costs, and hospitals mandated by the Affordable Care Act to deliver better quality care more efficiently and less expensively.
"From the patient's perspective the primary issue is convenience, with costs savings also part of the equation," said Dr. Kaveh Safavi, senior managing director of the health care consulting practice of Chicago-based Accenture LLP.
The walk-in health care clinic is part of the ongoing evolution of health care, as doctors and hospitals seek more efficient, lower cost methods of reaching patients.
The walk-in clinics, typically housed inside retailers such as Walgreens, CVS, Wal-Mart, Target and Jewel-Osco, are staffed by nurse practitioners, and offer basic medical treatment, such as flu shots and other vaccinations, strep throat tests and other screenings, and preventive care. Patients pay out of pocket, and can also use insurance cards for reimbursement.
The clinics arrived decades after hospitals invested heavily in urgent care centers, stand-alone facilities staffed by physicians who can treat more serious illnesses and injuries, such as sprains and broken bones, take X-rays and allow some patients to avoid a more costly trip to the hospital emergency room.
In a new twist, more urgent cares centers are popping up in storefront locations, with chains such as Physicians Immediate Care in shopping centers in Glendale Heights, Hanover Park and Lombard, and MedSpring Urgent Care in retail outlets in Arlington Heights and Naperville.
Besides the convenience, there can be cost savings. A recent Consumer Reports study showed that the average cost of a retail clinic visit was $110 compared with $156 for an urgent-care center and $570 for an emergency room visit.
Together, the walk-in clinics and urgent care centers now account for 20 percent of all physician visits, according to Accenture.
Over the past five years, the number of patient visits to urgent care centers rose 19 percent to 176.8 million in 2015, compared with 148.8 million in 2010, Accenture reports. Retail walk-in clinic visits climbed to 18.8 million in 2015, a 76 percent increase over the 10.7 million visits in 2010, according to Accenture.
With some 7,100 urgent care centers nationwide, the number of visits to these facilities greatly eclipses visits to retail walk-in clinics. But the rapid rise of walk-in visits has caught the attention of health care providers, and Accenture predicts that nationwide, some 2,800 clinics will be open by 2017, a 47 percent increase over 2014, when 1,914 clinics were open.
"People go to the doctor's office, then go to the drugstore. Health care providers are trying to combine these trips together under one roof," Safavi said.
That's precisely the strategy behind Advocate Health Care's purchase of the walk-in clinics inside area Walgreens. By May, 56 clinics will be rebranded as Advocate Clinics at Walgreens, operated by the nonprofit hospital group.
"It's about reaching out to the consumer, offering more convenience and cost-effectiveness," said Dr. Lee Sacks, Advocate's chief medical officer and executive vice president.
"With Walgreen's footprint and our commitment to delivering high quality, affordable health care, more patients will have access to the best care when and where they need it."
Northwest Community Hospital opened its Easy Access clinic in 2011 inside the Jewel-Osco in Palatine, and has time to study the results.
Patient feedback focuses around convenience and lower cost, said Dr. Sue Nelson, a Northwest Community physician. But Northwest Community also discovered that 25 percent of consumers visiting the clinic did not have a primary care physician, providing the hospital with the opportunity to connect with new patients.
"It is an opportunity to get those patients into our system," Nelson said. "From there, we can get them the right level of care, including referrals to physicians and specialists in our system."
Naperville-based Edward-Elmhurst, which has been operating retail clinics since 2012, discovered that 30-35 percent of its customers did not have a primary care physician, said Bill Kottmann, system vice president of physician ambulatory network development.
"It's a win-win. It's good for patients because they're linked up with high-quality physician care. And we get the benefit of another patient."
With two hospitals, a behavioral health center, four urgent care centers, and by spring, 12 retail clinics, Edwards-Elmhurst will offer patients even more access to its system, Kottmann said.
"It's about providing those access points," Kottmann said, "providing patients with the right care, at the right time, at the right cost."