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    NONFOODS: OTC and Pharmacy: The extra mile

    Growing retail walk-in clinics will help treat the ills of health care costs.

    By Joe Bucherer

    While grocery stores have always stocked "liquid penicillin" -- otherwise known as chicken soup -- today they’re home to the real deal: walk-in clinics staffed by nurse practitioners licensed to diagnose and treat common conditions such as allergies, bladder infections, bronchitis, ear infections, the flu, heartburn, muscle pain, pink eye, and minor burns.

    Nowadays, consumers can see a health care professional, get their prescriptions filled, and be on their way in 20 minutes. Anyone who has cooled his or her heels in the typical general practitioner's waiting room knows that kind of turnaround time represents a true medical miracle.

    Clearly, consumers are warming up to the walk-in clinic concept. In a spring 2006 survey, ACNielsen Homescan and Spectra took the public's temperature on the subject of walk-in clinics, and discovered that one-third of respondents were either very or somewhat likely to visit a walk-in clinic located in a supermarket, drug store, or mass merchandiser (see the chart below).

    While half of participating households had visited a doctor's office in the last year, 8 percent had visited an independent or freestanding walk-in clinic, and another 1 percent had visited a walk-in clinic embedded in a retail format.

    At present, walk-in clinics appear to be a perimeter phenomenon, with the South Atlantic (21 percent) and East North Central (16 percent) regions leading on a household patronage basis, followed by the Pacific and West South Central areas, at 13 percent each. The Eastern geographic skew may reflect a travel pattern of older New Yorkers commuting between their winter homes in Florida and their primary residences in the Empire State.

    Everybody wins

    Many walk-in retail clinics, like the 100-square-foot units developed by Minneapolis-based MinuteClinics, are designed and sited to feel like an extension of the store pharmacy counter, virtually ensuring captive prescription sales.

    While the retailer incentives are obvious and include driving traffic to the store, raising trip counts and creating the opportunity for incremental sales, walk-in clinics benefit insurers as well. One Minnesota-based health plan determined that walk-in clinic fees are so low (a minimum of 30 percent below a regular doctor visit) that the insurer waived any co-pay to encourage members to use the new service.

    The popularity of such in-store clinics has led to proliferation. Among the more appealing aspects of walk-in clinics are the easy physical access, proximity to home and work, available parking, intimate formats (smaller clinics have chairs vs. exam tables), posted prices, evening and weekend hours, and electronic patient files that can be quickly transmitted to doctors, along with referrals.

    Wal-Mart, for example, expects to open 50 in-store clinics by 2007, and then roll out the service nationally. Take Care Health of Conshohocken, Pa. has slated 20 Chicago-area clinics for the third quarter of 2006. Addison, Texas-based MedXpress, launched this summer, debuted an aggressive expansion plan calling for 500 U.S. locations by 2010. Solantic, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based in-store clinic provider, differentiates itself by providing physician staffing, and intends to have 1,000 sites up and running over the next five years.

    Rx for the ER?

    One of the newest developments in consumer-driven health care, walk-in clinics represent the latest response to a health care system that encourages patients to control their own health costs. As a serendipitous byproduct, walk-in clinics may prove to be a much-needed panacea for overtaxed emergency rooms, as well as an antidote for the 40 million uninsured Americans who represent the clinics' target audience.

    The cost savings are undeniable: One uninsured New York City paralegal priced out a doctor's visit to deal with a minor problem. Quote: $150 for the visit. Opting to try the walk-in clinic solution, she walked out with two prescriptions and a bill for $49, including medications.

    If retailers needed any additional motivation to take a serious run at the walk-in solution, the most telling diagnostic is the profitability test. According to a California HealthCare Foundation study, prescription drug margins run around 16 percent, compared with general merchandise profits of less than 5 percent. That translates into a profit injection for the bottom line, even as center store results weaken.

    Joe Bucherer is responsible for segmentation analytics for ACNielsen Homescan and Spectra, two of VNU's Marketing Information units. This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2006 issue of ACNielsen's Consumer Insight magazine.

    By Joe Bucherer
    • About Joe Bucherer

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