Opinion: Hair care's lessons for health care
The other day, I found myself in a predicament. I was having a bit of a bad hair day. So I went to a Drybar, the chain of quick-service salons, and poof! An hour and $49 later, I was ready for the catwalk.
Consider the simple chain of events that transpired. Within the space of a few minutes, I found a skilled professional to deliver a service I was incapable of performing myself. And the price was completely transparent.
If only the same sequence were routine in the health care market, where we similarly need services we can't take care of ourselves at a moment's notice. Doctors usually don't take walk-ins. And the price of care is rarely revealed upfront.
Fortunately, that's changing. Retail health clinics are proliferating nationwide, offering patients Drybar-style convenience and price transparency. This trend is encouraging. Seeking treatment for the likes of strep throat or a sprained ankle should be as simple as taking care of a bad hair day.
As most of us know far too well, seeing a doctor is a tangled mess. In large metropolitan areas, it takes 29 days for a new patient to get an appointment with a family doctor. A literature review published in the Journal of Community Health found that transportation barriers impact the ability of as much as 67 percent of the population to access care.
Further, people generally have no idea how much their visit to the doctor costs. Nearly six in 10 Americans have received a surprise bill for a medical service they thought would be covered by insurance.
No one wants to be "surprised" by their haircut — or an unexpected medical bill.
Retail health clinics, which offer a wide array of health services like physicals, vaccinations, and treatment for pink-eye and colds, directly address these two problems with the health care status quo.
For one, they're easy to access. Nearly three in 10 Americans live within a 10-minute drive of a retail clinic. Patients are seen almost immediately. And since these clinics are generally located in other stores — like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Target — patients can also run other errands. Plus, many clinics are open far longer than the typical doctor's office.
Better still, retail health clinics provide high-quality care at a low cost. Visits are up to 40 percent cheaper than a trip to the doctor. and 80 percent less expensive than care at the emergency room, according to research from Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. Prices are listed clearly up-front, so there are no surprises later. Plus, the quality of care is equal to or better than some doctor's offices.
The reason for this affordable, cheap care is simple — competition. Clinics must provide great service at a reasonable cost, or they won't attract customers.
Retail clinics are not the only example of competition working to provide higher-quality service at lower cost in the health care market. Take cosmetic surgery. In general, insurers don't cover these procedures. So providers have to offer enough value to attract customers' own hard-earned dollars.
That's yielded prices far lower than in the broader healthcare market. The price of cosmetic surgery only increased 30 percent between 1992 and 2012 — compared to a jump of 118 percent for general medical services. The cost of Lasik eye surgery actually fell by roughly 25 percent between 1999 and 2011.
Retail clinics and cosmetic surgery prove that market principles can yield better outcomes at lower cost in health care, just like they do in other sectors. Securing affordable, quality health care really ought to be as easy as getting a blowout at a Drybar.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO and Thomas W. Smith fellow in health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute.