Your throat is killing you. You could make an appointment with your doctor for the day after tomorrow — and then cool your heels for 40 minutes in an overheated waiting room. Or you could drive down to your local Target store and get a strep test, right now. Price: $48.
It doesn't quite qualify as a revolution in health care — but MinuteClinic (company slogan: "You're sick. We're quick.") promises to bring greater efficiency to the treatment of minor ailments. One of a handful of quick-fix medical clinics springing up around the country, MinuteClinic now has 22 locations in the Minneapolis and Baltimore areas, with ambitious plans for national expansion.
The concept is as simple as the clinics themselves: Each one is staffed by a single nurse practitioner who can treat a narrow range of common family illnesses, including the flu ($78), eye infections ($44), and athlete's foot ($25). Patients make no appointment and spend no more than 15 minutes being diagnosed. Low overhead — medical "equipment" amounts to little more than a computer, a printer, a few chairs, a stethoscope, and some tongue depressors — keeps things inexpensive.
And, in an especially sly innovation, most clinics are located in large retail settings, with eight recently installed in Baltimore-area Targets. If the nurse practitioner happens to be meeting with another patient when you show up — well, bring on the multitasking! Just grab a pager, which will notify you when there's an opening, and in the meantime, pick up some decongestant in aisle five. Post-appointment, prescriptions can be filled at Target's in-house pharmacy.
"Our diagnoses are those nagging, uncomfortable ones," says Tyra Carter, a nurse practitioner at the MinuteClinic in Ellicott City, Maryland's Target. "If a woman has a urinary tract infection on Monday, her doctor may say, 'I can see you on Wednesday or Thursday.' At MinuteClinic, we provide instant relief." Indeed, for most patients, the appeal is about convenience as much as cost-cutting. Patients can drop in after work (clinics stay open until 8 p.m.) or on weekends.
According to in-house research, 99% of customers walk out satisfied. That reflects MinuteClinic's shrewd core strategy: It focuses on just a few diagnoses that are both the most common and the most easily treated. Strict guidelines bar treating illnesses not on the menu. "You wouldn't go to an ATM to take out a mortgage, and you wouldn't go to a MinuteClinic if you had chest pain," CEO Linda Hall Whitman says. But for mono, or ringworm, or cold sores, a quick stop at the discount store could be just the right cure.