AMA Wants Probe of Retail-Based Medical Clinics

The American Medical Association wants authorities to investigate whether quickie retail-based health clinics run by pharmacy chains pose conflicts of interest that put profits ahead of patient health.

The nation's largest physicians' group on Monday adopted a resolution vowing to seek an investigation after several AMA doctors complained that the clinics interfere with the traditional practice of medicine.

The AMA wants state and federal agencies to look into whether pharmacy chain-owned clinics located in the stores urge patients to get their prescriptions filled on site, which the AMA maintains would pose a conflict. It also said that insurance companies should be banned from waiving or lowering co-payments only for patients who get treatment at store-based clinics.

A spokesman for Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreen Co., which operates 63 clinics in its stores in six states, said customers aren't steered to Walgreen pharmacies, and are allowed to get prescriptions filled wherever they choose.

He said the AMA action was misguided and that any investigation would find no problems.

"If the AMA pushes this agenda, its members may find out that legislators and constituents have been demanding accessible, affordable and high-quality health care for years and that's what retail clinics are delivering," Walgreen spokesman Michael Polzin said.

Walgreen is expanding its clinics and expects to have 400 by the end of 2008, he said.

The measures adopted at the group's annual policy meeting rejected some physicians' requests that the AMA oppose the clinics outright.

"If we believe in consumer-driven medicine, if we believe that it is the responsibility of medicine to respond to the needs of our patients and if there is a strong consumer demand, then we in fact are going to have to compete in this arena," said Dr. Peter Carmel, an AMA board member.

There are about 500 retail-based health clinics nationwide, said Michael Howe, chief executive officer of MinuteClinic, a Minneapolis-based chain of about 200 clinics in 20 states. It was acquired by CVS Corp. last year.

The clinics typically offer same-day appointments plus weekend and evening hours for routine health problems, including sore throats and ear infections. Generally staffed by nurse-practitioners or physician assistants, the clinics often charge less than traditional doctors' visits.

Howe said the clinics are intended to supplement, not replace, traditional doctor-patient relationships, and that opposition comes from "the fringe in the medical community."

Kirsten Harrison, 39, a Minneapolis-area office manager, said she uses the clinics frequently when her children's doctor is booked up.

"If it's strep throat, I can't wait two days to get them into the physicians' office," Harrison said. "It's just been so efficient."