Should I Go to the Doctor or Try Walmart?

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Source: iStock

Health clinics in retail settings have seen tremendous growth, which has prompted many Americans to wonder whether they should give one a try. While they aren’t a substitute for other forms of medical care, retail clinics have carved out a niche for providing certain services at a low cost. For many patients, a time-sensitive medical issue often means a visit to an urgent care center. Because of the shortage of primary care doctors in many areas of the country, patients sometimes have to wait weeks to see their own doctor or months for a new patient appointment. So as long as the problem isn’t serious enough to warrant the emergency room, off to the urgent care many patients must go.

The problem with urgent care centers is they sometimes come with a high price tag, even for insured patients. That’s why retail clinics, under certain circumstances, are a faster and cheaper option. They usually rely on licensed health professionals like nurse practitioners and prioritize convenient, low-cost care without the need for an appointment. As far as quality goes, RAND researchers gave a lot of credibility to the quality of care provided by clinics for certain conditions. On top of that, approximately one in five visits to a primary care physician and one in ten visits to an emergency department are for a problem that can be treated at a retail clinic.

While they still aren’t available everywhere, retail health clinics are on the rise. The number of retails clinics has increased by 900%, from 200 clinics in 2006 to 1,800 in 2014. According to Manatt Health, retail clinics represent about 2% of all primary care encounters, although patients typically pay a fraction of the price they would in other settings.

At first it may seem odd to bring your health concerns directly to pharmacies, grocery stores, or big-box store like Target or Walmart. But for minor conditions, these clinics are doing quality work at low prices, for both insured and uninsured patients. Here are some good reasons to try out this burgeoning model of health care delivery.

1. You want to save money

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Source: iStock

Health clinics at retailers offer more reasonable prices for the uninsured, and they typically accept many health insurance plans. According to a 2009 Annals of Internal Medicine study, the average costs of care for retail clinic visits were substantially lower than those of matched episodes initiated at physician offices, urgent care centers, and emergency departments ($110 vs. $166, $156, and $570, respectively). Rates at retail clinics can be as low as $45 to $75. At Walmart’s Care Clinics, for example, the standard base rate is $40 per visit, not including testing. Additional pricing is available for lab work and vaccines.

2. You have an appropriate reason for going

Sneezing, cold, flu, sick

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Many retail clinics offer a specific menu of services that you can check before you go. In general, you’re looking at minor conditions like pink eye, strep throat, cold and flu, bronchitis, ear infections, rashes, minor cuts, bladder infections, and sometimes preventive services like vaccines and annual screenings. Consumer Reports published a useful breakdown to help patients determine when to go to a retail clinic, urgent care center, or emergency room. If it turns out you need to see a doctor, the clinic will refer you.

3. You’re not seeking pediatric care

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Source: iStock

In February 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised parents to stay away from retail clinics because they don’t have complete health records on young patients. The AAP also claimed quality could be lacking and practitioners may overprescribe antibiotics, but the RAND study found no evidence to support these concerns. Consumer Reports recommends seeing a regular pediatrician when you can, but if after-hours appointments aren’t available or you’re out of town, “a retail clinic could be a reasonable substitute.”

4. You’re short on time

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Source: iStock

One of the best selling points of retail clinics is they tend to be quick, as evidenced by names like “Minute Clinic,” the CVS brand of health clinic. Short wait times aren’t guaranteed of course, but patients can call ahead to check on approximate wait times. With evening and weekend hours, retail clinics are much more convenient for people with busy schedules and limited time. If you’re at a supermarket or superstore clinic, you could conceivably do your grocery shopping, health care visit, and pharmacy pick-up all in one place.

5. To encourage expansion

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Despite the fast growth already in progress, there are many parts of the country where retails clinics simply aren’t an option. If you’re lucky enough to live an area that has a few to choose from, trying them out will help provide the fuel to allow these clinics to expand to new areas. According to RAND’s research, in 2010, retail clinics were more likely to be used in wealthy sections of metropolitan areas. Many retail health clinic advocates claim improved access to care for the medically underserved, but in order to make this a reality, we’ll need a lot more low-cost clinics.

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