Walk-In Clinics Can Bring Affordable Health Care to the Uninsured

Despite the $1.9 trillion spent on health care in the United States in 2005 -- 16 percent of the GDP -- the American system of keeping its citizens well, and caring for them when they are ill, remains broken and neither consumers nor health-care providers are happy.

Because of the rising costs of health insurance and a startling number of employers cutting back or simply not offering health-care benefits, for the first time in decades millions of Americans are opting out of health insurance altogether.

Consequently, patients are paying a greater percentage out of their own pocket and searching for health-care alternatives.

To answer the growing need for affordable health care, walk-in clinics staffed by medical professionals have sprung up in retail stores across the nation.

These clinics provide high-quality, nonemergency care in a convenient setting at preestablished and reasonable rates.

From a slow start in the early part of the decade, the industry has exploded with approximately 300 clinics in current operation and up to 3,000 planning to open their doors over the next three years.

This new approach to health care has the potential to dramatically reshape health care in this country by providing an easy and alternative entry point into the health-care system for millions of patients without a regular physician.

Early anecdotal information suggests that up to 40 percent of the customers of retail walk-in clinics may not have a regular doctor.

Imagine your child has an ear infection or your husband has poison ivy or you have strep throat -- on a Saturday afternoon.

You have two options -- wait until Monday or face an overcrowded emergency room where you may wait for hours before being seen and are then billed at the urgent care rate.

Walk-in clinics give families a new, more cost-effective third option of going to your neighborhood retail store and visiting the clinic. Diagnosis and medication if needed in hand, a patient can be seen, treated, and back home in bed in a fraction of the time.

If the patient already has a regular family physician, he or she can be sent the patient's record that provides an ongoing accurate account of treatment.

Dr. Alan Lotvin is a cardiologist, and president and CEO of Care Clinic, Inc. a health-care clinic operator. Beginning in November 2006, Care Clinic, Inc. will open walk-in clinics in Indiana, Michigan and Nevada, providing basic health-care services to local community residents.

Similarly, walk-in clinics provide a tremendous opportunity to improve lives by identifying people with a significant chronic disease as they come in for more symptomatic illnesses.

A clinic may treat a 55-year-old overweight male for the flu while at the same time identifying his yet undiagnosed cholesterol problem, and refer him to a primary-care physician for further analysis and treatment.

For many conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, only about a half of the people with the condition are aware they have it, making the identification and initiation of lifestyle changes and treatment at earlier stages in the disease critical for overall patient health.

Clinics also provide a convenient place to monitor and adjust the treatment of these chronic conditions.

In the current environment, regular checkups for chronic conditions can be inconvenient and expensive. But now patients will be able to enter familiar local retailers for quick and inexpensive cholesterol tests and have the results sent to a primary-care physician within minutes.

Doctors can then review results and, when necessary, recommend changes to treatment plans on a consistent basis.

This convenience enables systematic analysis of a patient's condition with the goal of actually improving quality of life -- or in this case -- actually lowering that patient's cholesterol.

As the U.S. population grows past the 300 million mark and the baby boomers continue to age, clinics will alleviate the growing shortage of primary-care physicians.

Nurse practitioners and physician's assistants, working with physician oversight in these clinics, can manage a broad range of illnesses thereby extending the reach of physicians and providing high-quality care to a greater number of people.

Information technology will be widely used in these settings to track and manage patient records.

As patients and physicians alike see the value of improved access to medical information, pressure will mount for all sectors of health care to more effectively use new IT to improve patient care.

More importantly, as patients experience easier and more efficient ways to access their information, they will demand technologies that force all the parts of the system to "talk" to each other.

Dr. Alan Lotvin is a cardiologist, and president and CEO of Care Clinic, Inc. a health-care clinic operator. Beginning in November 2006, Care Clinic, Inc. will open walk-in clinics in Indiana, Michigan and Nevada, providing basic health-care services to local community residents.

Lastly, clinic operators recognize from the start that they are in a service business and that success is dependent on making sure that every patient who walks into a clinic has as an outstanding experience.

The care has to be the highest quality, the setting has to be inviting, the process has to be simple, and they need to walk out feeling well cared for.

If we can excel in all these areas, looking back a decade from now we may see that $1.9 trillion as money well spent.

Many Americans believe in the promise of a better health-care system in this country.

If we want to lower health-care costs, improve quality of treatment, shorten emergency-room wait times, and make general health care available to the millions who currently can't afford it, we must take advantage of the opportunity these clinics and other innovative programs can provide.

Dr. Alan Lotvin is a cardiologist, and president and CEO of Care Clinic, Inc. a health-care clinic operator. Beginning in November 2006, Care Clinic, Inc. will open walk-in clinics in Indiana, Michigan and Nevada, providing basic health-care services to local community residents.

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