Walgreens has come a long way from just treating earaches and stuffy noses at its clinics. Is the Deerfield, Ill.-based retailer on a path toward looking and acting a little more like a health system than a corner drugstore?

As we recently explored in our October cover story, its Healthcare Clinic division, which runs about 400 clinics, has recently stepped into the realm of diagnosing and treating chronic conditions. This to go along with a slew of other innovative approaches, like partnering with one Georgia hospital to deliver medications to the bedside, or championing multiple ACOs with physician groups in New Jersey, Texas and Florida.

The retail health clinic industry continues to expand its numbers — leader CVS hopes to more than double its locations by 2015, up to 1,500 — leaving hospital leaders pondering the next expansion of services coming down the pipeline. While these retailers probably aren't ever going to own physician practices or hospital beds, leaders at the top three clinics do expect to eventually look more like a part of the delivery system, working hand-in-hand with top health networks to coordinate care. 

Andrew Sussman, M.D., president of MinuteClinic, told me last month that CVS is now working on a pilot program to roll out by the end of this year using telemedicine to better manage excess demand in certain locations. If all the nurse practitioners are occupied at a high-traffic spot, for example, a patient could visit a room to consult with an NP from another site that isn't as swamped. This could also open the door for physician consultations at MinuteClinics or employer headquarters further down the line.

All MinuteClinics have a connected electronic health record across the country, but Sussman hopes that eventually his company could link to hospital- or state-based health information exchanges for greater sharing of information and management of population health to create a broader virtual medical home.

"There will be more connectivity and flow of information back and forth between our clinics and providers in the more traditional health care system," he says. "And that would facilitate more sharing of information and more sharing of patients, including those with chronic disease, but only in collaboration with their physician practice."

Little Clinic, the third largest chain with 105 locations in six states, operates a work-site clinic for GE employees that's still in the fine-tuning stages, says CMO Kenneth Patric, M.D., and that's a model they may look to expand. Telemedicine, too, is "constantly on their radar screen," he adds.

Two Walmart clinics north of Philadelphia are already making use of telemedicine through a system called Smart Care Doc. There, patients are greeted by a nurse and consult with a doctor through a flat screen and Web camera, asking questions, having their heart and lungs listened to with an electronic stethoscope, and getting their prescription filled. Meanwhile, others, such as OptumHealth and HealthPartners in Minnesota, are experimenting with online versions of clinics, accessible right from a desktop computer, that provide similar services.

Alan London, M.D., CMO of Healthcare Clinic, believes Walgreens will continue evolving as a key part of the delivery network.

"Because of our footprint, because of our 112-year history of serving patients' needs in terms of pharmacy, I think we'll begin to look more like part of the health care system than part of the retail store industry," he says.

How do you feel about the ongoing expansion of retail health clinics, and the ties they're forming with top-tier health systems like Cleveland Clinic and Sharp HealthCare? Is your organization exploring ways to partner, or better compete with Walgreens or CVS? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and make sure to read our October feature.