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Retail Health Clinic Access Increased by 51% During Pandemic

Increases in retail health clinic access came as utilization of ambulatory surgical centers and emergency departments went down.

Retail health clinic access and utilization are on the up and up, as more patients accessed these alternative care sites than other points of care like ambulatory surgical centers and emergency departments in 2020 and 2021, according to FAIR Health data.

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, retail health clinic utilization increased by 51 percent. Meanwhile, urgent care center utilization increased by 14 percent.

These findings come as experts continue to eye alternative care sites as the way of the future for healthcare. These alternative care sites—which mostly refer to retail health clinics and urgent care centers, as well as telehealth and ASCs—are usually more convenient for patients, making them a more attractive option than traditional provider offices.

The FAIR Health analysis added that alternative care sites are more popular among women than men, with 2021 showing more claim lines for women across most age groups.

But that might change soon, the analysis continued, as folks of either gender in the 19-to-30 age group are increasingly visiting retail health clinics. In 2019, these alternative care sites were most frequented by women, with around 70 percent of claim lines for retail health clinics being for women. But in 2020, 64 percent of claim lines were for women, and in 2021 between 60 and 63 percent of claim lines were for women.

The most popular states for retail health clinics in 2021 included Rhode Island, Maine, Arkansas, Connecticut, and Georgia, with FAIR Health saying these states had the greatest percentage of retail health clinic claim lines.

Retail health clinics and other alternative care sites may be getting more popular because they are more convenient for patients. After all, primary care offices still have long appointment wait times for patients. Wait times, plus office closures during the research period due to the pandemic, may have pushed patients into these alternative care sites.

But retail health clinics and urgent care centers are not perfect, the data showed, mostly in terms of cost. The most common procedure in any office, retail health clinic, or urgent care center was CPT®2 99203, a new patient outpatient visit lasting between 33 and 40 minutes. In urgent care clinics, the cost for that shook out to $240, but in primary care offices, the cost was $226.

These findings about retail health clinics come as the industry notices a distinct downturn in telehealth utilization from COVID’s first outbreak. During the study period, the researchers observed a 76 percent downswing in telehealth utilization between 2020 and 2021. This may be reflective of more people returning to in-person care access.

Still, telehealth has seen an overall jump in utilization of more than 5,000 percent between 2016 and 2021, marking how the pandemic changed attitudes about telehealth likely for the long term.

Overall, alternative care sites are becoming more popular because they are more convenient for patients, who are increasingly assuming the role of healthcare consumer. During the pandemic, consumers were able to get more goods online, creating a more seamless experience. That’s been reflected in healthcare, according to Natalie Schibell, a VP and research director for Forrester Research.

“We saw this tremendous rise of consumerism where people wanted in their healthcare experiences what they're experiencing in retail: everything at their fingertips here and now in their moment of need,” Schibell said in a previous interview.

Patients don’t want to jump through the hoops of traditional healthcare models; they want their healthcare to operate like their consumer experiences, and that’s possible in retail health clinics.

“People certainly do not want to wait 20 days for an appointment. They don't want to have to call somebody up on the phone. They want it to be seamless,” Schibell added. “And a lot of retail organizations came up with online appointment scheduling so that you would go to the store, you'd get what you needed, or it could possibly be delivered in the home environment. And so patients wanted that, they crave that, and now they demand it.”

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