When the first retail clinics opened15 years ago, no one could have foreseen how they would transform healthcare delivery or how quickly they would do it. The 2,000th clinic recently opened, and the number is projected to grow to nearly 3,000 by 2017. And with its growth, retail health has evolved into an integrated partner in mainstream healthcare delivery, with a growing number of affiliations with traditional hospitals and health systems.

A recent report by the Convenient Care Association, which represents retail clinics, noted that there are now more than 100 affiliations between the clinics and hospitals and health systems. Among the benefits of retail clinics that make them attractive for partnerships are easier access to healthcare services, lower costs, improved quality and better continuity of care for patients.

More than 30% of the population now lives within a ten-minute drive of a retail clinic, underscoring the inherent convenience of these providers. Among the advantages they provide to hospitals are after-hours care and a lower cost alternative to crowded emergency departments for non-emergent cases.

Studies have shown that the services provided at retail clinics cost an average of 30% to 40% less than they would at physicians' offices and almost 80% less than in emergency departments. One study estimated that diverting non-emergent cases to retail clinics could save up to $4.4 billion annually. Research has also shown that the quality of care is the same or better.

Partnerships between retail clinics and hospitals are also using innovative technologies such as telehealth and point-of-care testing. Telehealth connects patients virtually with providers who can provide an array of diagnostic and treatment services remotely with a cost savings of up to $100 less than traditional in-person visits. Point-of-care testing allows for rapid, on-site diagnoses at affordable costs. These technologies are especially important for patients in rural areas, where some specialty services are not easily available, and for patients with chronic conditions.

When the first retail clinics opened, critics feared that their convenience would threaten the establishment of medical homes for patients; however, the CCA report noted that they actually serve as a point-of-entry for all aspects of healthcare. Collaboration between retail clinics and health systems allows for data sharing and integration of electronic health records, which enable the clinics to play an important role in referring patients to medical homes and enhancing continuity of care.

This is an exciting time for the retail health industry as it has evolved from a disruptive innovation to a proven model of care that can be replicated worldwide. As an industry, retail health has embraced the label of 'disruptive' because it means that it is not afraid to challenge the status quo. Through innovative partnerships with hospitals and health systems, retail clinics will continue to evolve and make affordable, high-quality and convenient care accessible to patients.

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