The New Frontier Of Telemedicine Is Drug Stores

Editor’s note: Chirag Patel is the managing director of Highnote Foundry, which has an incubated company, WorldClinic, that provides connected care through telemedicine.

Modern medicine has seen some amazing technological advances. Heart surgeries that used to be all day open-heart procedures requiring long hospital stays can now be performed as arthroscopic outpatient procedures in a few hours. Tattoos can monitor vital signs, and contact lenses can monitor glucose levels. In a third-world country, you can get the results of an AIDS test in minutes at the cost of a few dollars.

But in a world-class hospital in Manhattan, a visit to the ER because of an ankle sprain still means filling out countless forms, waiting for hours and being charged exorbitant amounts that are likely not covered by your insurance policy.

For that same ankle sprain, you can go to a CVS clinic, pay $80-$100 and be on your way with a bandaged ankle and a prescription in less than an hour. Clearly, improving the level of care provided is a business model challenge, not a technology one.

Seeking Better Alternatives

Retail medical clinics are becoming more accessible and ubiquitous (opening up in Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS) – offering a level of convenience, predictability and cost transparency not available in traditional hospitals. Even Whole Foods is getting into the act, and for good reason. The full costs of a visit to an ER are staggering and opaque. Based on available data, the average cost of an ER visit is over $2,000. Even when you visit an in-network hospital, patients can be slammed with unanticipated costs.

Many retailers have eliminated the guesswork for consumers by posting their prices on the web (including Walgreens and CVS). And unlike a hospital that will charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for a test, most of Walmart’s prices are under $40.

Fortune 500 companies and other large employers are also opening up on-site clinics in an effort to reduce healthcare costs and provide added benefits to employees. It won’t be long before we see medical treatment in physician offices and hospitals as the exception rather than the rule.

Opportunity or Threat?

Much has been written about the threat of this shift to hospitals and physicians. The American Academy of Pediatrics has even spoken out strongly against such clinics. However, this thinking is both naïve and short-sighted. The traditional medical community shouldn’t be combatting this change. Rather, they should be embracing the trend as a way to survive an evolving industry where they will be paid based on outcomes (rather than activities) and will need to deliver services through connected technology.

The Battle for Better Care

Hospitals are starting to realize that they can get into the game by offering similar levels of convenience and transparency. Novant Health is capitalizing on the growth opportunity by partnering with Target to open walk-in clinics inside Target locations that are staffed by Target nurse practitioners and overseen by Novant doctors.

Temple University Health System is another organization pursuing this model by operating ReadyCare clinics in Philadelphia. Alternately, some hospitals are investing in the ecosystem to stay close to developing trends and preferences (for example, UnitedHealth Group purchased Audax).

Moving Slowly, But Catching Up

For all the advances in treatments and medical devices, providers have never been known to be on the forefront of technology, but this is starting to change. In the coming years, as telemedicine begins to deliver its promise of continuous care, retail clinics will be an enabler and a necessary partner to virtual healthcare providers.

Telemedicine providers such as WorldClinic that deliver continuous connected care through virtual means and rarely physically see patients will leverage the retail clinic network for lab work and to dispense medication to their patients. The network also offers convenient locations for regular testing of patients who are being managed for post-treatment follow up or chronic care management. With this network, virtual continuous care management can become the norm for how healthcare is experienced and delivered.

How Do I Choose?

Convenience, lower cost and transparency are table stakes – all the retail clinics sprouting up have that. So what differentiates them? As an investor or a consumer, how do you choose?

Here are some key factors to consider:

  • Broad range of services. Clinics should offer more than simple diagnosis and treatment. Look for them to include services, such as chronic care management and lab tests, as well. With new offerings like smoking cessation treatment at CVS and chronic diabetes and hypertension care at Walgreens, it’s not hard to imagine clinic-based physical therapy and weight-loss support groups.
  • Sufficient level of care. Clinical staff should receive adequate training and certification and remain current on the latest treatment protocols. The clinic should also offer access to doctors and specialists (either delivered on-site or through video conference) to enable the support of a greater range of issues and more complex cases.
  • Electronic integration with Health Care Networks and Electronic Health Records (EHR) systems. EHR systems become paramount to enable continuity of care for patients, so that all records are available online and include information from the increasing variety of providers that an individual can see. CVS already shares data with more than 40 health systems.
  • Connected devices. From diagnostic devices providing instant cultures and lab results to wearable devices that are integrated into the AppleHealth system, clinics should employ the best in emerging technology. More than simply convenience and low-cost options, these devices and systems enable the clinic to collect standardized health data and support chronic care management.

There are more patients and fewer physicians to provide care today than ever before. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects that by 2025 the U.S. will face a shortage of 130,600 physicians. Emerging retail clinics combat this trend head on. Healthcare providers have an opportunity to lower costs and improve the level of care provided by embracing the retail clinic trend through direct investments or partnerships.

It won’t be long before doctors operate completely virtually, relying on video technology, connected medical devices, electronic health records and a network of clinics to effectively manage patient care in a way that delivers better outcomes – and better patient experiences.