Blog | Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Minute clinics threaten doctors: Who wins?


All of us have been to fast food establishments. We go there because we are in a hurry and it's cheap. We love the convenience. We expect that the quality of the cuisine will be several rungs lower than fine dining.

7:59 by Rennett Stowe via Flickr and a Creative Commons licenseWe now have a fast medicine option available to us. Across the country, there are over 1,000 "minute clinics" that are being set up in pharmacies, supermarkets and other retail store chains.

These clinics are staffed by nurse practitioners who have prescribing authority, under the loose oversight of a physician who is likely off sight. These nurses will see patients with simple medical issues and will adhere to strict guidelines so they will not treat beyond their medical knowledge. For example, if a man comes in clutching his chest and gasping, the nurse will know not to just give him some Rolaids and wish him well. At least, that's the plan.

Primary care physicians are concerned over the metastases of minute clinics nationwide. Of course, they argue from a patient-safety standpoint, but there are powerful parochial issues worrying physicians. They are losing business.

They have a point that patients should be rightly concerned about medical errors and missed diagnoses at these medical care drive-ins. These nurses, even with their advanced training, are not doctors. It is also true that serious or even life-threatening conditions can masquerade as innocent medical complaints and might not be recognized by a nurse who treats colds and ankle sprains.

The Annals of Internal Medicine, a prestigious medical journal, reported on the quality of these retail clinics and concluded that the quality of care for ear infections, sore throats and urinary tract infections in fast-medicine outlets was similar to that in physicians' offices, but at lower cost.

While this is ammo for fast-med aficionados, it doesn't address a more important point. I'll concede that if I take my kid with an ear infection to a Wal-Mart clinic or the pediatrician, then the outcome will be similar. (Many experienced moms would also know what to do.) The tricky part is when the symptom is murky and the range of medical possibilities is broad. If my kid were having stomach pain, for example, I want a physician to decide if this is simple constipation, intestinal gas or acute appendicitis that needs urgent surgery.

These clinics are proliferating because the market demands them. The fundamental cause is the inadequate number of primary care physicians in this country. This shortage will become more acute when Obamacare extends coverage to tens of millions of uninsured. Massachusetts discovered this a few years ago when they provided coverage to the uninsured, but didn't have enough primary care physicians to care for them.

These clinics are also providing a service that physicians have been unable or unwilling to match. They offer evening and weekend hours at low prices. Patients come at their convenience and are seen without waiting.

Pharmacies and big box stores benefit from minute clinics. They bring shoppers into the store who are likely to purchase other items after their scraped knee is bandaged. And if a prescription is needed, guess where it gets filled? From a patient's point of view, this experience sure beats an emergency room adventure.

Are these clinics a good idea? It doesn't matter because they're coming and they can't be stopped. They fill a legitimate need that the medical profession cannot address and the public demands. Market forces created the opportunity and will monitor its success.

Will they survive? Remind me, how long have McDonalds, Burger King and all the rest been around?

This post by Michael Kirsch, FACP, appeared at MD Whistleblower. Dr. Kirsch is a full time practicing physician and writer who addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.