46_Michael C. Howe

The Quick Fix

Welcome to drive-thru health care: It’s conveniently located inside your local Target, CVS pharmacy, or supermarket; it’s quick, cheap, and stays open late and on weekends. Physician assistants or nurse practitioners (not doctors) will diagnose, and prescribe drugs for, the dozen most common ailments–your ear infections, your allergies, etc.–for between $28 and $110 (about half of what you’d pay at a doctor’s office and a fraction of the cost of an ER visit). And no appointment is necessary.

When MinuteClinic hired CEO Michael C. Howe last June, the five-year-old company had 22 locations in Maryland and Minnesota; today it runs 90 clinics from Seattle to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and is shooting for 300 in 20 states by year’s end and 800 by 2010. The potential upside in the $1.9 trillion health-care industry seems endless (a growing list of competitors apparently agree).

Howe, a former CEO of Arby’s, predicts that his short-order approach will transform the healing arts. He says his run as a sandwich mogul gave him “an appreciation of the importance of the customer, or in this case, the patient.” If it gives you pause to have a roast-beef professional overseeing little Suzy’s lab results, know that after 360,000 patient visits, MinuteClinic reports a 99% satisfaction rate. And Dr. Stephen Schoenbaum, executive vice president for programs at the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan health-care grant-making and research tank, gives the clinics a qualified thumbs-up: “My one concern would be continuity” of care, he says. But “our health-care system at the moment is so fragmented that [continuity] is only a small component in a very large problem.”