In a recent White House briefing, several corporate leaders were present as the president declared a national emergency. You may not have recognized some of them, but they were leaders of several large corporations (e.g. Target, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart) that are coordinating with government agencies in an effort to “flatten the curve of COVID-19.

These corporations now have retail health services within their business portfolios, which puts them at the forefront of the rapid changes affecting society in response to the COVID-19 pandemic along with traditional health care services — like hospitals. The actions they take as key players in health care delivery will have a significant impact on public safety, and their swift actions aim to prevent the disease from overwhelming our health care system.

Even 10 years ago, we would not be talking about retail health clinics having such an important role in public safety.

Retail Health Clinics Rise to Prominence

Retail health clinics (aka “retail clinics”) are small primary care clinics located within retail outlets such as Target (MinuteClinic), Walmart (Care Clinics), CVS Health (MinuteClinic) and Kroger (The Little Clinic). It is not just their unusual location that makes them different from other clinics and doctor’s offices — at a retail clinic, you probably won’t see a doctor at all! Instead, patients of a retail clinic will most likely be treated by a nurse practitioner or physician assistant. This form of health care delivery only came onto the scene in 2000 in Minnesota as a pilot called “QuickMedx.” Very quickly this innovative new form of health care delivery, featuring a nontraditional physical space and nontraditional medical professionals, took hold nationwide. By 2007, they had spread widely through the country, and became a key service for large retail companies.

Filling a Gap, Developing Trust

In the past decade, retail clinics have become even more widespread, as well as more accepted by people as a legitimate place to go see a medical professional. This form of health care filled a need in the market for convenient, timely and high-quality primary care treatment, addressing enduring problems of access to basic health care services in many communities. In addition, their association with retailers who have strong brand recognition and reputation has helped them build trust with consumers and establish sure footing in a highly competitive health care services landscape. Now, this success puts them on the frontlines of confronting a pandemic that is testing the limits of our current health care infrastructure.

The U.S. response to COVID-19 shines a bright light on problems of access and capacity in the existing health care delivery infrastructure — an inefficiency that retail clinics have been trying to address since their inception in 2000,” says Professor Dennie Kim, who specializes in health care delivery and reform and has been studying the spread of retail clinics in collaboration with Professors Roman Galperin at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business and Gurneeta Vasudeva Singh at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

“After two decades, the pandemic may provide a critical proving ground for retail clinics to demonstrate their value to communities and the health care system. We see that these clinics are currently playing an important role in the response, helping reduce the load on hospitals by providing basic health care services in stores where people are shopping for necessities and keeping people home through telemedicine.”

Swiftly Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety

With over 3,000 locations, the national distribution of retail health clinics allows for large-scale coordination across states in an effort to protect the communities they serve from the COVID-19 threat. Retail clinic leaders are collaborating with public health organizations and other stakeholders (e.g., health insurance companies, hospitals) to quickly coordinate public safety measures across the health care system. For example, CVS Health and MinuteClinic have taken several measures to protect its stakeholders during the COVID-19 outbreak including:

  • Increased Hiring and Bonuses: Providing bonuses and other benefits to many current retail employees, as well as hiring thousands of new full-time and part-time staff to handle an increased demand for health care services.
  • Online Appointment Scheduling: All appointments are to be scheduled online to prevent infections from unscheduled walk-in visits among patients.  
  • Pre-Screening Questions: Patients are asked questions prior to an in-person visit to gauge COVID-19 exposure risk factors. They may receive guidance to instead visit a different health care setting that better meets their needs given the patient’s specific circumstances.
  • Video Visits: Video visits are being communicated as the safest way for patients to interact with medical professionals when possible.

Retail Clinics in the Days Ahead

The current situation may make patients, and health care professionals, even more comfortable with these more novel methods of receiving health care services. We can be grateful for the fact that, in addition to supplying basic household necessities, these retail sites can also provide some basic but important health care services,” adds Professor Kim. “Anything that enables patients to seek medical advice while reducing volume at hospitals — and minimizing unnecessary exposure and spread — will contribute to ‘flattening the curve.’”

With their strong value proposition, retail clinics quickly filled a need in our health care system for a narrow set of services. Current events demonstrate that they are now an integral player in tackling a pandemic that threatens community health and there is evidence that retail companies are interested in expanding their health care offerings (e.g., Walmart Health Center, CVS Health). The health care landscape is changing rapidly, but these dynamics point to retail clinics having an even more relevant role in health care delivery in the days ahead.

This article was developed with the support of Darden’s Institute for Business in Society, at which Andrew Sell is associate director of research initiatives

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About the Expert

Dennie Kim

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

Dennie Kim is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration in the Strategy, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship area at Darden. His research examines the design and performance of whole organizational networks, with particular interest in U.S. health care delivery and reform. Current work examines the networks of Medicare Accountable Care Organizations and surgical procedures, as well as the emergence of retail health clinics in the U.S.

He earned his Ph.D. in business administration from the University of Minnesota and A.B. in biology from Harvard University. Prior to joining academia, he worked for several years as a strategy consultant in the biopharmaceutical industry and project manager in hospital administration.

B.A., Harvard University; Ph.D., University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management