Convenience clinics—also known as retail or “in-store” clinics—are gaining in acceptance, and can offer patients substantial savings on routine medical care compared to when the same services are offered in other treatment settings, according to a study from HealthPartners.

Retail clinics—such as MinuteClinic, ExpressCare and RediClinic—provide simple and/or routine health care services, typically those that can be diagnosed and treated by following strict protocols and that do not require follow-up care. These clinics are housed in drug stores, grocery stores and big-box retailers. According to RAND Corporation, the number of convenience clinics in the United States now stands at about 1,000, and this is expected to grow to 6,000 by 2011.

HealthPartners, a Minnesota-based health plan, examined member claims data over a four-year period, comparing treatment for five conditions in a physician’s office, emergency room and urgent care center setting, with treatment at MinuteClinic (which is a HealthPartners’ contracted provider). The five conditions studied were sore throat, middle ear infection, sinus infection, pink eye and urinary tract infection. According to the analysis, total convenience clinic claims for these conditions averaged $51 less per visit than in the urgent care setting, $55 less than in a physician’s office, and $279 less than in an emergency room. These figures include pharmacy costs.

Thus, members saved about a third of the cost by being treated in a convenience clinic instead of in a physician’s office or urgent care center, and even more than that over treatment in a hospital emergency room. The study notes that, while it did not focus on quality of care, data on repeat visits for the same episode of care could indicate no discrepancy in quality of care.

The study also found that health plan members’ convenience clinic utilization grew each year at about a rate of 3% annually. The RAND study, which was based on data provided by eight convenience clinic operators, found that the percentage of visits to these clinics paid for out-of-pocket was only 16% in 2007, compared to 100% in 2000, indicating that health insurance now typically covers convenience clinic services.