Walgreens announced last week its clinics will now handle this kind of treatment. The American Academy of Family Physicians opposes this but as a recent U.S. Senate report showed, 57 million Americans already lack access to primary care doctors, and the shortage is only going to grow. Walgreens can handle more work through a combination of nurses, physicians assistants and data. Doctors become second-line resources, handling only the more difficult questions the clinics aren't qualified to answer. Walgreens' pharmacy records have expanded through its clinics into sophisticated electronic health records. In addition to its roughly 350 in-store clinics, it has 350 clinics at corporate work sites as well as a program linking hospital patients to the clinics, as Kaiser Health News notes. This has been a serious problem for years. A study in the American Journal of Managed Care concluded two years ago that clinics can provide equivalent care to a doctor's office for 30%-40% less, and 80% less than an emergency room, which is where many uninsured patients now go.
An aging and increasingly obese population assures this will only go up. Primary care is said to be in crisis. There aren't enough physicians to go around. By using data and nurses, Walgreens says it can fill the gap. This is truly a trillion-dollar opportunity, and it may be why the company's stock is selling at such a premium to the market. At the time of publication, the author had no investments in companies mentioned here. Follow @DanaBlankenhorn This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.