Walk-in clinics, also known as convenient care, are healthcare providers that don’t require appointments. They generally treat non-emergency illnesses and injuries, as well as providing some lab tests, health screenings, and immunizations.
The most common type of convenient care clinics, known as “retail clinics,” are available through pharmacies and grocery stores. Other clinics are run by health organizations or non-profits, serve specific populations like the homeless or uninsured, or work as an after-hours supplement to regular physicians’ offices.
Regardless of who runs them, walk-in clinics are usually staffed by nurses or physician’s assistants, rather than doctors. They all focus on providing basic medical services when your primary care doctor is unavailable or too expensive.
Clinics provide immediate care for injuries or illnesses that are not emergencies. Many offer prescriptions; those that cannot will often refer you to a physician or suggest over-the-counter remedies.
Non-emergency illnesses include sore throat, allergic reactions, upset stomach, pink eye, urinary tract infections, ear aches, and flu symptoms. Clinics can also treat injuries such as sprains, bruising, animal bites, and minor burns. Most offer vaccinations, such as flu or tetanus shots.
Some convenient care clinics perform screenings for blood pressure and pregnancy, though they will generally refer you to a doctor for actual treatment. They also provide physical assessments for work or school.
Broken bones, lacerations, serious illness, severe pain, chronic conditions, physical trauma, and life-threatening emergencies are not handled at these clinics. These conditions should be treated by a primary care physician, urgent care center, or emergency room.
Walk-in clinics offer two primary benefits: convenience and cost.
You can visit a clinic as soon as you experience symptoms, rather than waiting for an opening in your primary care doctor’s schedule. Because clinics do not take appointments, patients are seen on a first-come, first-serve basis. Most appointments take a total of 15 to 20 minutes, including wait time.
Many clinics are open during early mornings, weekends, and evenings, when a traditional doctor’s office would be closed. This can make it easier for patients to receive immediate care without taking time off from work or school.
Initial services at clinics are often less expensive than a regular appointment at a doctor’s office and much cheaper than a visit to an emergency room. The cost of a visit is usually $50 to $75, with additional lab tests or vaccinations running $30 to $50 each.
According to The Washington Post, a visit that could cost $110 at a convenient care center might cost $156 at an urgent care center, $166 at a primary physician’s office, or upwards of $500 at an emergency room. If you have an insurance plan with a high deductible, or no insurance at all, a walk-in clinic can help you save money on basic care.
However, there are drawbacks to using convenient care services.
According to a report by MarketWatch, you can end up paying much higher costs if your insurance does not cover your visit. If you accidentally stop into an out-of-network clinic, you may find yourself with a much larger bill, while, depending on your health insurance, you would only be responsible for a $10 to $50 copay at your doctor’s office.
Many family physicians also worry that walk-in clinics are eroding the relationship between doctors and their patients, according to one study. As more and more patients turn to convenient care options, rather than doctors, chronic conditions and other major health problems could go undiagnosed.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that children should always be seen by their regular doctor even for minor illnesses and injuries, as they can often be a sign of, or lead to, larger underlying problems. For both adults and children, convenient care clinics often focus on immediate solutions, rather than lifestyle changes or long-term treatment options that your regular doctor might suggest to manage your health.
If you decide that a walk-in clinic is the best option for your care, you will likely be able to find several options nearby.
Many large drugstore chains now have retail clinics, including CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid. Big box stores, such as Wal-Mart and Target, often offer basic medical services, as do some grocery stores. You can call the location closest to you or search online to find out whether they have an on-site clinic and what services it provides.
Depending on where you live, hospitals or nonprofit organizations may staff clinics during non-business hours. You may have to call or search online to find one close by. The Convenient Care Association, a national trade association for walk-in and urgent-care clinics, can help you locate nearby health services through their website.
September 01, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN