Study: Retail clinics save nonemergency patients money

INDIANAPOLIS Allergy sufferers can save money and receive quality, convenient care by skipping the emergency room and instead visiting a retail-based or urgent-care clinic, according to a recent study.

The study conducted by HealthCore, WellPoint’s outcomes research subsidiary, found that patients can save anywhere from $50 to $400 in out-of-pocket costs per visit by skipping the ER and heading to a retail health- or urgent-care clinic when they are unable to see their primary care physician.

“When possible, we recommend that our members visit their primary care physicians for non-emergency treatment,” stated Dr. Manish Oza, WellPoint medical director and emergency room physician. “If that’s not an option, in cases where patients are looking for treatments related to allergies and colds -- such as sinus infections, sore throats, ear infections and bronchitis -- it just makes more economic sense to go to a retail health clinic or urgent-care clinic.”

In addition, the study found that few patients who received care at retail health clinics or urgent-care clinics needed follow-up care for their ailment, implying that they received the appropriate level of care, stated John Barron, HealthCore director for health-plan research.

The study of members in WellPoint’s affiliated health plans in 14 states found that nearly 1-in-5 ER visits (19.4%) were for non-emergencies, including conditions such as upper respiratory infections, sore throats or urinary tract infections. This is during a time when ER visits have increased 31% in 2005 compared with 1995, and ER waits to see a physician have increased from 38 minutes in 1997 to 56 minutes in 2005, according to federal government statistics provided by WellPoint.

Bronchitis, one of the more expensive conditions to treat, cost $646 to treat in the ER, compared with $97 for an urgent-care visit and $54 for a retail health-clinic visit, according to the study. Average costs for ER visits for all conditions studied ranged from $441 for the ER to $98 for urgent care and $52 for retail care. These costs represent total costs, including the portion paid by the health plan member.

The study showed that for every member treated at retail health clinics, about 15 others are treated in the ER for the same conditions.

The study also looked at overall costs to treat individual episodes over a two-week period for ailments associated with allergy, cold and flu, along with conjunctivitis and urinary tract infections. In this case, ER episodes cost an average $500, while urgent care cost $150 and retail health clinic cost $90.