The pros and cons of retail health care

Traditional retailers are expanding their offerings to provide consumers with low-cost, convenient health care alternatives

shopping cart with pills, ampoules and syringes in it
Costco has joined Amazon, Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS Health in offering health services directly to customers
(Image credit: Svitlana Romadina / Getty Images)

In collaboration with health startup Sesame, retail behemoth Costco will now offer its members access to outpatient medical services, including virtual primary care visits, for only $29, CNN reported.  

In a press release, Sesame said Costco members will now have access to low-cost health care providers within their direct-to-consumer marketplace in all 50 states. The company does not accept health insurance "because it primarily caters to uninsured Americans and those with high-deductible plans who prefer to pay cash for their health care," CNN summarized. The company added that its model keeps prices reasonably low for its users. 

The partnership now brings Costco in line with competitors like Amazon, Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS Health, all of which are "directly providing health care to customers as the demand for urgent care access outside of a traditional hospital setting booms," CNN noted. Whether or not retail health care reshapes the industry, it's worth weighing out the benefits and pitfalls of this increasingly popular option. 

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Pro: It makes health care more convenient

Convenience is a big selling point for retail health care. From in-house clinics in local pharmacies and shopping centers to virtual offerings and appointments, an increased variety of options is better and more convenient for those in need. Patients can make appointments online, sometimes through existing memberships, or walk into a clinic whenever they have time. Retail clinics are also occasionally open outside of typical doctor's office hours. 

Con: It's not the best option for all medical issues

Retail health clinics and virtual visits may not be suitable for everyone. Suppose you are taking certain medications or have a chronic health condition. In that case, you might be better off seeking help from a hospital or a primary care physician who is familiar with your medical history. "Health care is different for older adults," Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, health care policy professor at Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Health Blog in 2016. "The care you'll need for even a simple problem might be more complicated."

Pro: It democratizes heath care

Affordable health care that doesn't require insurance opens up care for people who otherwise wouldn't have access. This could be especially useful in areas with a deficit of hospitals or other medical providers. Dollar General recently partnered with DocGo, a mobile medical clinic company, to "test whether it could draw more customers and tackle persistent health inequities," NPR reported. Pairing mobile clinics with "Dollar General's ubiquitous small-town presence" has been applauded by "investment analysts and some rural health experts as a way to ease the rural health care drought," NPR added.

Con: 'Scattered' care can lead to mix-ups 

Even if it's convenient, jumping between providers can mess up the continuity of your care, particularly if you see different people for the same problem. Retail clinics do offer to send your medical records to other providers, but oversights are still a concern. "The risk with that is, scattered care from multiple places can lead to mix-ups," Dr. Suzanne Salamon, geriatrician and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Health Blog. "And if people don’t bring their complete medication lists to a clinic, the clinic may prescribe something that will interact with medications they're taking."

Pro: There is transparent pricing 

Transparent and fixed pricing is another draw for retail providers, particularly when high health care costs, hidden fees and unexpected medical bills are taken into account. Retail providers' prices, typically displayed on their websites, are often significantly lower than that of a primary care visit or a trip to the emergency room. This transparent and fixed pricing aligns with retailers' "efforts to act as discount superstores," which "enhances their brand value," per Fierce Healthcare.

Con: You could end up in the emergency room anyway

Retail clinics are primarily built for low-acuity ailments, so if you show up experiencing severe symptoms, you're likely to get rerouted to an emergency room or hospital anyway. This might happen in instances where the patient isn't educated on which facility is appropriate for the level of care they need, per PatientEngagementHIT. A patient in this scenario also risks receiving an "inaccurate diagnosis that then stems into further treatment-seeking following the initial urgent care visit." 

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