Selling quick fix for minor ailments

Health: Clinics promising inexpensive, convenient care are to open in local Target stores.

August 08, 2004|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

SHOREVIEW, Minn. - At the gigantic Target store in this Minneapolis suburb, you can sip a cafe latte at Starbucks, savor a slice with pepperoni from Pizza Hut - or get your ear infection diagnosed at the MinuteClinic.

Target Corp., the nation's second-largest retailer, has a half-dozen emergency health clinics at stores in its home state of Minnesota. It plans to open eight in the Baltimore region in the next two months.

Staffed by nurse practitioners and with an assurance that patients are in and out within 15 minutes, the clinics stress convenience and dispatch. Their brochures carry the slogans "Your neighborhood ... Your schedule" and "You're sick. We're quick."

They're run by MinuteClinics, a Minnesota company founded by a doctor and a pair of venture capitalists. They originally sought to build an Internet site for health advice, but instead pursued the clinic idea after they found themselves griping about long waits at emergency rooms with their children.

Since opening four years ago, their clinics have logged 150,000 patient visits; they project revenue this year of about $4 million.

MinuteClinics hopes to expand beyond Minnesota to have more than 200 locations in 20 cities by 2008, said Linda Hall Whitman, the chief executive officer. Besides the eight at Baltimore-area Targets, the company is scouting sites at supermarkets and other potential "hosts" in Maryland.

MinuteClinics at Target are the latest extension of the nexus of medicine and retailing. Wal-Mart Corp., Sears Roebuck and Co. and BJ's Wholesale Clubs have become some of the nation's leading sellers of eyeglasses through their in-store vision clinics. Conversely, pharmacy chains such as Walgreen Co. and Rite Aid Corp. are increasingly devoting larger spaces to food, electronics and products besides medicines.

In a back-to-the future trend evoking the old country stores and city department stores of a half-century ago, big-box discounters and supermarkets are offering various services - from shoe repair to dry cleaning, beauty spas to wine shops - to give busy families a chance to complete their errands in one trip, said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York consulting firm.

"Supersize it or specialize it," Liebmann advises her retail clients. And for a supersizer such as Target, she said, quick health clinics are "a great thing to add to their portfolio."

While Target said the clinics offer convenience to customers, they also spur foot traffic for Target.

MinuteClinic surveys of patients find that 95 percent get their prescriptions filled at the Target after being diagnosed at the clinic. Pharmacy sales in the Shoreview Target are up about 15 percent since the MinuteClinic opened last year, making it one of the top-selling Target pharmacies in the Twin Cities area, according to Megan MacEachen, a manager at the store. Also, about half of the MinuteClinic clients do regular shopping in the store after visiting the clinic, according to the patient surveys.

One trip, not three

In Shoreview, a suburb of low-slung stores, restaurants and office parks, Larry Osmek had brought his three children to the Target store one day last month to get strep tests for himself and his son Zachary, 3, both suffering from scratchy throats.

"To go to the pediatrician, I would have had to drive further, and we would have to wait for who knows how long," Osmek said. Besides, he said, it would have meant two trips - to his son's pediatrician and to his own doctor, with potentially a third trip to a pharmacy.

As Osmek signed in at the MinuteClinic, he picked up a beeper. Then he went shopping for about 10 minutes, tossing into a cart shorts and tops for his daughters Ashley, 7, and Courtney, almost 1. His pager went off and he returned to the clinic. He and Zachary tested negative, and the family headed home, all within 15 minutes.

While "Target is proving to be a great partner for us," said Whitman, the CEO, it has not been decided how many MinuteClinic locations will be in Target stores. MinuteClinic is also talking to a national pharmacy chain and a grocery chain, she said.

As a medical trend, MinuteClinics represent another step in a long, and sometimes winding, path toward providing more convenient and less expensive settings for health care.

The past three decades have seen a rise in the number of free-standing urgent-care clinics - originally derided as "doc in a box" - designed to cost less and see patients more quickly than hospital emergency rooms. MinuteClinics offer an even cheaper and quicker alternative in an even smaller space; it could be called "nurse practitioner in a box."

MinuteClinics are about 135 square feet, about the size of a typical bedroom. They are staffed only by a nurse practitioner - a nurse with master's-degree-level training who can write prescriptions.

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