Lessons From MinuteClinic

After entering the clinic a thought occurred to me: why do we need doctors? Then a second thought: why do we need nurses? Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

About a decade before the Obama administration started touting electronic medical records and evidence-based protocols there was MinuteClinic. The entity came into existence primarily to cater to patients paying out of pocket.

There was no need for a law requiring price transparency. In every market where the dominant buyers are patients spending their own money, prices are always transparent. MinuteClinic posts its prices on a computer screen and on readily available pamphlets. Clearly, the organization is competing on price. Entities that compete for patients based on price usually compete on quality as well. One study found that MinuteClinic nurses following computerized protocols follow best practice medicine more consistently than conventional primary care physicians. They also do a pretty good job of knowing what kind of medical problems they are competent to handle and which problems need referral to a physician.

Wherever you find price competition you usually also find that providers are respectful of your time. As the name “MinuteClinic” implies, this is an organization that knows you value your time as well as your pocketbook. I couldn’t help but wonder if the entire health care system might be this user friendly, if only the third-party payers weren’t around.

For the first 15 minutes of my 20 minute visit, the nurse barely looked at me. She was sitting in front of a computer screen typing in my answers to her questions, as she went through the required decision tree. I didn’t mind. Mine was a minor problem and I did not want to pay for more sophisticated service.


Then the nurse turned to some hands-on stuff. First she took my blood pressure. [Is this required by some law? Even my dental hygienist takes my blood pressure.] Then there was a quick look in my ears nose and throat (I was there for an eye problem). Finally, there was some listening to my chest cavity with a stethoscope.

Here is something that was especially impressive. The nurse was able to call up on her computer screen every prescription CVS pharmacy had filled for me — nationwide. MinuteClinic already has the beginnings of a medical home, in addition to electronic medical records and electronic prescribing. (Again, all this is without any prodding from government agencies.) In some places, walk-in clinics are sharing their records with hospitals, and I suspect doctors would be included as well, were it not for the silly restrictions imposed by the Stark amendments.

Now back to my original musings. Clearly lot of primary care can be delivered without doctors. But how much do we really need the nurse? If a nurse can type in my answers to questions and follow a decision tree, why can’t I do that myself? If the nurse’s advice is largely read off a computer screen, why can’t I read the advice myself?

What about the hands-on activities? Patients can already take their own blood pressure. In fact you can do it yourself inside the CVS pharmacy. If the health care system were not so dominated by third-party payer bureaucracies, I suspect my iPhone would already have a stethoscope app. If my iPhone can easily identify a piece of music playing in a local bar, how hard would it be to create an app that interprets stethoscope sounds? As for the ENT observations, couldn’t an app do that as well?

Finally, there is the matter of the prescription my nurse e-mailed to the pharmacy. If she is just following a protocol, why do we need the nurse? Why can’t I do it myself? Or more precisely, why can’t I authorize the computer to mail in the prescription the same way the nurse does?

Here’s my prediction: Within five years we’ll all have MinuteClinic decision trees on our personal laptop computers.

John C. Goodman, PhD, is president and CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis. He is also the Kellye Wright Fellow in health care. His Health Policy Blog is considered among the top conservative health care blogs where health care problems are discussed by top health policy experts from all sides of the political spectrum