More and more, grocery stores are starting to function like Main Street. In addition to buying groceries, customers can stop at the bank, the post office, the video store and even the dry cleaners. It should come as no surprise then that the newest service available at the grocery store is medical care.
In an attempt to make healthcare more accessible, South Bend, Ind.-based SmartCare Medical Centers of America has opened medical clinics in two Kroger-owned supermarkets--one in Arizona and one in West Virginia--and has plans to open several more.
While the concept may seem unorthodox to healthcare providers, the clinics have proven to be popular.
SmartCare is open seven days a week and, on weekdays, 12 hours a day. While 15 to 18 patients a day is the clinics' benchmark for success, according to George Poe, vice president and general manager of SmartCare, the clinic in Peoria, Ariz., saw as many as 30 patients a day during the winter when visiting seniors swelled the area's population. Peoria is a suburb of Phoenix. SmartCare is the brainchild of Armand J. Rigaux, M.D., a South Bend physician who was a private practitioner for 33 years.
When a local hospital offered to purchase his practice in 1993, he accepted the proposal so he could pursue his desire to do locum tenens work.
"Traveling around the country and working in clinics, I had a lot of time to think about medicine and healthcare," Rigaux says.
SmartCare is a joint venture between Executive Health Services, a medical corporation owned by Rigaux, and Diversified Holdings, a real estate and lease-space management organization. Both are based in South Bend.
The first clinic opened in November 1996 in Huntington, W.Va. The second opened last January in Peoria. The Peoria clinic is located in a 700-square-foot space inside Fry's Food and Drug, a Kroger subsidiary. A third clinic is under construction in Vail, Colo. Plans for additional clinics in Colorado and the Phoenix area are in the works.
"New people moving in don't know where to go, so they come to us," he says. "I don't know if they consider us their primary doctor, but if they don't feel good or their kids are sick, we're seeing them."
In the Peoria location, many people who winter in Arizona use the clinic as their healthcare provider away from home. The elderly, in particular, like the concept, Rigaux says. They can stop by to check their blood pressure while shopping; parking is not a problem; there are no stairs; and the grocery store offers motorized carts for those with walking difficulties.
In Vail, SmartCare will be located inside another Kroger subsidiary.
Poe says consumer-friendly medicine is driven by a three-fold strategy: convenient hours, good location and smiling workers.
The decision to locate medical clinics in grocery stores was made because such stores are high-traffic venues where people already feel comfortable.
Another plus of placing the clinics inside grocery stores is that they can be located beside store pharmacies.
The clinics are designed to ensure a friendly atmosphere. Each has a reception area that opens to the store, three private examining rooms, electrocardiogram equipment and full lab facilities.
The public's initial reaction to a medical clinic in a supermarket was skepticism, says Linda Hogan, a nurse practitioner at the Arizona clinic. But that response changed quickly, she says. "People began to realize that they could just run in to see the doctor and get some groceries, too," she says.
The clinics offer fee-for-service healthcare on a walk-in or by-appointment basis. They accept Medicare but no other insurance. The prices at SmartCare are comparatively low, Poe says, and they are standard, regardless of where a clinic is located.
To staff the clinics, SmartCare works with South Bend-based Explorer Healthcare and Phoenix-based EAI Healthcare Staffing Solutions. Explorer provides physicians and nurse practitioners; EAI provides support staff.
Mickey Echales, chief executive of EAI, thinks the future of SmartCare is bright. "When you look at the food stores of today, with the convenience they are providing their shoppers, it makes sense to stock them with all types of services," he says.
Heidy Hartley served as a summer editorial intern for Modern Physician.