Kaiser Permanente aims to double its retail clinic network over a four-year span, increasing its footprint from 17 in 2018 to 35 in 2022. This year alone, the integrated health system plans to add about four clinics in Southern California Target stores.

While 2020 was likely an outlier given the periodic shutdown of non-essential services following the ebb and flow of COVID-19, foot traffic across Kaiser’s retail clinics was up about 50% from 2018 to 2019. Patients who used the clinics to fill prescriptions, schedule an appointment, consult with a specialist via video or telephone and access other services were increasingly happy with their experience, said Bill Caswell, chief operating officer for Kaiser Permanente Southern California.

“We look at these retail clinics as an extension of our integrated model,” he said, adding that treatment pathways are connected by the electronic health record and patients are steps away from a pharmacy. “When we look at patient outcomes, follow-up visits and customer and patient satisfaction, we are delivering on our promise of quality care.”

And though Kaiser’s experience provides a promising example, many other health system experiments with retail clinics have fallen short of expectations as providers adjust staffing, service offerings and IT infrastructure.

Providers hope that a second iteration of retail clinics will better connect care.

“Part of this version 2.0 is maximizing our ability to bring in specialists via telehealth,” Caswell said. “We’ve learned a lot, especially over the past year, in how telehealth can hit the sweet spot in meeting customers’ needs.”

Meeting consumers where they are could head off more complex care. But if data isn’t shared properly or if the staffing mix is off, retail clinics can lead to excessive, duplicative treatment.

Providers are also wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have permanently shifted how patients access care as telehealth and scope of practice regulations adjust.

“If you’re losing an entire generation of family practitioners and internists that are not being replaced, having retail clinic access points are important. But there are significant volume and service-mix hurdles,” said Jeff Goldsmith, founder and president of consultancy Health Futures. “If these retail clinics are loss-leaders, then you have to wonder about the investment logic.”

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