Take Care Retail Health Clinics Add Online Scheduling
Walgreens subsidiary's focus on patient convenience puts pressure on primary care practice doctors to follow suit.
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Take Care Health Systems, a Walgreens subsidiary that operates 350 retail clinics across the country, has begun to offer online appointment scheduling. This new feature, along with a planned expansion of healthcare services, will increase the competitive pressure on primary care practices in the markets where Take Care Clinics are located.
Online scheduling is an important addition to the menu of online services that Take Care announced last summer. These services include the ability to look up quality and cost information and patient wait times on Take Care's website.
Consumers can now make appointments either on the Internet or at kiosks in Take Care outlets. After looking up a particular clinic and seeing when it has open slots, a customer can book an appointment at the time that's most convenient.
About 20% of family physicians offer their patients the ability to request appointments online, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). But only a small percentage of those doctors let patients actually book the appointments, said Terry McGeeney, president and CEO of TransforMED, an AAFP subsidiary that promotes the patient-centered medical home.
"It's not common yet for practices to give patients access to their schedule because they may have detailed protocols for appointments," McGeeney said in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.
One reason for this complexity is that primary care physicians deal with far more different types of cases than retail clinics do. Whereas the latter usually focus on minor acute complaints, primary care doctors also treat patients who have chronic diseases or who are recovering from hospitalizations.
The typical length of a Take Care Clinic visit is 20 minutes, making it fairly easy to let patients choose appointment slots. However, Take Care recently began offering Medicare wellness exams, which take longer than that. And the company has diversification plans that depend partly on online scheduling.
"We have plans to expand our scope of services, and we believe appointment scheduling will be a key enabler, because a lot of those visits will be longer than 20 minutes," Heather Helle, divisional vice president of Walgreens Consumer Solutions Group, told InformationWeek Healthcare. "We're going to go much further in terms of the number and types of services we deliver."
Helle would not disclose whether this means Take Care's nurse practitioners and physician assistants will begin treating chronic conditions, as they do at some other retail clinics. But that would be the logical deduction.
Interestingly, Helle mentioned that primary care doctors who refer patients to Take Care Clinics after hours can use the online scheduling function. McGeeney acknowledged that some primary care physicians do send patients to retail clinics after hours. But he emphasized that a key goal of the patient-centered medical home is to get practices to expand their evening and weekend hours.
Retail clinics already operate seven days a week, and their addition of online scheduling will induce some practices to follow suit, McGeeney said. "Some of the retail clinics' own data suggests that, all things being equal, patients would prefer to see their own doctor. But very often, convenience trumps that. So that's one of the drivers we see of practices being willing to go to extended hours."
McGeeney added that retail clinics are also forcing some practices to become more patient-centric. That's understandable. According to Helle, patient experience surveys conducted by Gallup show Take Care Clinics in the top 10 percent for consumer satisfaction across all types of retail businesses.
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