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Retail Clinics Fail to Reduce Low-Acuity Visits to Emergency Departments

November 11, 2016

The opening of retail clinics near emergency departments had little effect on the number of emergency department visits for low-acuity ailments, according to a study in the online Annals of Emergency Medicine.

“One hope for retail clinics was that they might divert patients from making expensive visits to the emergency department for minor conditions such as bronchitis or urinary tract infections,” said Grant Martsolf, lead author of the study and a policy researcher at RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization. “But we found no evidence that this has been happening.”

The study looked at the link between retail clinic openings and the rate of emergency department visits for 11 low-acuity conditions, such as respiratory infections and earaches. Researchers used data from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project State Emergency Department Databases for 2053 emergency departments between 2007 and 2012.

Among all patients, they found, retail clinic openings were not associated with a lower rate of emergency department visits for minor ailments. Among patients with private insurance, however, researchers identified a “very small” decrease in low-acuity visits to the emergency department.

Rates of emergency department visits for minor ailments were highest among patients covered by Medicaid, according to the study. Researchers pointed out that retail clinics might be less of an option for such patients because only 60% of the clinics accepted Medicaid, while 93% accepted Medicare and 97% accepted private insurance. 

“Retail clinics may emerge as an important location for medical care to meet increasing demand as more people become insured under the Affordable Care Act,” said coauthor Ateev Mehrotra, MD, MPH, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an adjunct researcher at the RAND Corp.

“But contrary to our expectations, we found retail clinics do not appear to be leading to meaningful reductions in low-urgency visits to hospital emergency departments.”

Jolynn Tumolo



Martsolf G, Fingar KR, Coffey R, et al. Association between the opening of retail clinics and low-acuity emergency department visits [published online November 10, 2016]. Ann Emer Med. DOI:

Retail clinics do not reduce ER visits for minor ailments [press release]. Washington, DC: EurekAlert!; November 10, 2016.

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