JUST WHEN it seems there may be no cure for the rising cost, yet inadequate coverage, of health care in the United States, good old American ingenuity comes to the rescue with at least a partial antidote.
Entrepreneurs in Minnesota have come up with a way to treat common minor ailments that is low-cost and patient friendly. And what's even better, they're bringing their MinuteClinics to eight locations in the Baltimore region over the next two months.
This is a very promising development that can not only increase access to medical care but save patients, insurers, employers and taxpayers money on use of emergency rooms and urgent-care clinics for conditions that don't require a high level of expertise.
Maryland's medical and political communities should welcome this innovation and try to apply whatever lessons it offers to create other novel approaches to the vexing and growing problem of meeting the state's health care needs.
As reported by The Sun's M. William Salganik, MinuteClinics are tucked in corners at Target stores and feature nurse practitioners who treat painful or uncomfortable ailments that are not life-threatening, such as strep throat, poison ivy, bladder infections and deer tick bites.
They write prescriptions and administer vaccinations, but are meant to be neither a substitute for a primary care physician nor a first stop for emergency care of a more serious nature.
A physician is always on call just in case, but health problems that seem chronic or beyond the scope of the nurse's training are referred elsewhere.
The idea is to provide a place to go -- particularly for parents with suddenly coughing, sneezing or itching children -- that's available without an appointment even during evening and weekend hours and easy to get in and out of, usually within 15 minutes.
Fees for the services average $40, and are covered by private insurance and Medicaid without prior approvals. The same services would cost at least twice as much at an urgent-care clinic, and four times as much at a hospital emergency room.
Ten percent to 15 percent of the nearly 150,000 patients who have visited the six MinuteClinics in Minnesota over their four-year history have no insurance. Such patients could be treated free at hospital emergency rooms, but they would likely have to wait for hours because true emergency cases are taken first.
Such clinics have to be properly supervised and regulated by state officials, of course. But they appear to offer great potential to relieve suffering -- not only of patients and their families but in the troubled health care system itself.