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Retail health clinic utilization climbed by 202% by 2022

Although still one of the least-visited alternative care sites, retail health clinic utilization soared between 2021 and 2022.

Retail health clinic utilization soared a whopping 202 percent nationally from 2021 to 2022, signaling the continued care access shift into alternative care sites, according to the FAIR Health Healthcare Indicators and Medical Price Index reports.

The report, which measured healthcare utilization in a number of alternative outpatient settings, also indicated that retail health clinics are among the least expensive places to access healthcare.

Alternative care sites have gotten much attention in healthcare as patients assume the role of healthcare consumer. Factors like convenience, timeliness of appointment access, and cost have become essential as patients consider where to access healthcare. In particular, retail health clinics have become more popular with patients, as illustrated by the 202 percent boom in utilization.

But across care sites explored—emergency departments (EDs), telehealth, urgent care centers, ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs), and retail health clinics—retail is still among the most underrepresented alternative care sites. Despite seeing significant growth in utilization, retail health clinics still represented 0.2 percent of all medical claim lines nationally.

That compares to ED services (4.2 percent of all medical claim lines), telehealth (3.9 percent), urgent care centers (2.1 percent), and ASCs (1.1 percent).

Still, the report signals that retail health clinics could be the way of the future for many healthcare consumers who are looking to get timely access to care at a low cost. Indeed, the growth in retail health clinic utilization was the highest for any of the alternative care sites studied. ASC utilization increased by 88 percent, while urgent care center use increased by 43 percent, and telehealth utilization increased by 8 percent.

The surge in retail health clinic utilization could be credited to shifts in how patients access care for COVID-19 symptoms. Although COVID-19 was among the most common diagnoses for any of the care sites studied, it rose particularly in retail health spaces, potentially because the illness has become lower acuity and patients no longer perceive a need to visit a higher acuity setting like the ED to access care.

Cost may also have something to do with the increased access to retail health clinics. The highest median allowed amount for CPT 99204 (new patient office or other outpatient visit, 45-59 minutes) for offices, urgent care centers, and retail health clinics in 2022 was $183. Charges in retail health clinics came in short of that, with $149 as the median allowed amount. In urgent care centers, it was $174.

Other findings reveal geographic and demographic trends in healthcare utilization at alternative care sites. Females are still overrepresented in claim lines for alternative care sites and EDs, the report showed. Additionally, retail health clinic utilization was more common among adults under age 65.

And while New York was a high utilizer for urgent care centers and telehealth, it was not for retail health clinics.

These findings are similar to those from last year’s FAIR Health report about alternative care sites. The 2023 iteration, which covered 2020 and 2021, showed that retail health clinic utilization increased by 51 percent during the pandemic.

Other research groups are reporting similar trends. A separate 2023 report from Wolters Kluwer showed that 58 percent of patients are likely to visit their local pharmacy to get basic types of non-emergency healthcare. Particularly, pharmacies are popular locations for vaccinations, with 62 percent of adults saying they’d go to a pharmacy-based retail health clinic to get a shot.

What’s more, healthcare consumers are not yet comfortable with every retail health clinic site. While consumers expressed interest in visiting retail clinics that are located inside pharmacies, they had less trust in those located in big box stores, like a Walmart or Target. Eight in ten respondents said they would probably never visit a big box store for healthcare.

Patient preferences for pharmacy-based retail health access largely rest in the fact that patients trust their pharmacists. Most consumers, especially those managing chronic illness and filling many prescriptions, see their pharmacists more often than they do their own doctors, helping to lay the groundwork for a trusting patient relationship.

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