Hospital- and physician-run clinics may be better, but at what cost to privacy?

July 31, 2009

The romance between health care clinics and the stores that house and sometimes own them has run hot and cold in their brief history.

The romance between health care clinics and the stores that house and sometimes own them has run hot and cold in their brief history. Flirtations here (CVS bought Minute Clinic, Walgreen acquired Take Care Health Systems), shuns there (Walmart scaled back its clinic ambitions, CVS shut 100 of its clinics for the summer), and growth seems stalled now.

But hospitals are a new beau vying for the retail space and consumer traffic that could eventually create a base of future inpatients and outpatients for the mother medical centers. They bring name recognition, credibility with consumers, and the resources and motives to sustain relationships. They could turn up the heat and provide the key to financial viability for clinics, which are reportedly losing the ardor of venture capitalists..

The drug chains, supermarkets and mass merchants that partner with serious medical institutions could enhance their images and lessen liability risks—especially if the hospitals choose to staff the retail clinics with physicians rather than nurses and physician-assistants. Even with hospitals as partners, retailers will need patience for all of the hoped-for goodness to develop: increased customer counts, more frequent trips to the store, cross-merchandising and crossover sales.

According to a report in American Medical News, Walmart “decided that hospital partnerships would lead to a more sustainable business model.”  Bruce Shepard, director of health business relationship development for the giant discounter, told the publication: “More hospitals are willing to take on the initial financial loss as part of an overall marketing strategy focused on access to care. The clinics can serve as an entry point for new patients to eventually become connected to primary care physicians.”

Examples are growing:  the Cleveland Clinics lent its name to CVS clinics in northeastern Ohio; the Mayo Clinic operates Express Care clinics inside a supermarket and a mall in Rochester, MN; the Lehigh Valley Health Network and Geisinger Clinic run a retail clinic at King’s Market, the New York Times reported.  Jewel-Osco has opened Physicians Prompt Care Express, its first physician-staffed clinic, inside of its Orland Park, IL, store, the Daily Herald reported.

While these moves represent progress in expanding access to affordable care, raises the question: At what cost to privacy?  What information will be shared and how? Can both partnering sides be trusted to protect confidential data in a retail environment? (Remember the data breach at CVS a few years ago.)  In our view, there’s continuing risk even in the best-intentioned partnerships.

We already know that credit card companies base decisions on items people buy. Consider what greater insights insurers might glean from any combined data coming from retailers and health care providers? Will we regret the consolidation of information about prescriptions, medical services and routine purchases—and will we be able to unwind this if we ever feel compelled to do so? Let’s move carefully into this one.