Rite Aid clinics place new twist on “doc-in-a-box”

By Pamela Lewis Dolan, amednews staff.

OptumHealth, a division of UnitedHealth Group, and American Well adapted the technology behind Optum’s NowClinic for retail clinics at Detroit-area Rite Aid pharmacy locations. Both online and at Rite Aid, patients can pick an available doctor to “see.” [Image courtesy OptumHealth]

“The pharmacy chain is operating in-store clinics in Michigan where doctors and patients interact only through an online video screen.

“When patients walk into a NowClinic at any one of nine Detroit-area Rite Aid pharmacies, they can choose among multiple physicians to see about what’s ailing them.

“Not see in person. See on a computer monitor.

“What’s going on at these Rite Aids is a merger of multiple trends focused on providing more convenience to patients than, presumably, a physician’s office can deliver.

“‘A lot of people, unfortunately, are left disconnected from their doctor, whether it’s clinical reasons or financial reasons or availability,’ said Ido Schoenberg, MD, chair and CEO of American Well, the technology vendor behind the virtual clinics.

“Neither telemedicine nor retail clinics are new — but combining them is.

“Like the other retail pharmacy chains, Rite Aid is trying to brand itself as a wellness center as much as a pharmacy.

“The retail clinic business, which sells itself as quick, convenient, inexpensive, walk-in care, has been a tool for such branding. It is a sector dominated by Rite Aid competitors CVS and Walgreens, which together accounted for 904 out of 1,355 in-store clinic locations as of the end of 2011. Rite Aid, until fall 2011, only had nine, according to Merchant Medicine, a Shoreview, Minn.-based retail clinic consultancy.

“Rite Aid and OptumHealth joined forces to find a less expensive alternative to traditional clinics, which are staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants who are contracted from a local hospital group. Those startup costs have been a factor as to why growth of retail clinics, until a nearly 100-location expansion by CVS’ Minute Clinic in 2011, had been mostly flat in recent years.

“Rite Aid and OptumHealth decided it would be more cost-effective to go with virtual visits — nurses and physicians seeing patients via a computer screen.

“OptumHealth launched the NowClinic concept in August 2010 as an online offering that patients in Minnesota could access at home. Through the NowClinic website, patients and physicians connect via Web chat or video conferencing, the same way they would from the NowClinic exam rooms at Rite Aid. The online system has since expanded to 22 states. Other insurers have launched similar systems, including WellPoint, which also contracts with American Well, to offer virtual visits to members in several of its markets. Rite Aid’s clinics began opening in fall 2011.

Here’s how NowClinic works:

“A patient walks into a private room, usually near the pharmacy counter, and registers himself or herself on the computer terminal.” To continue reading this article at American Medical News, click here.

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