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Healthy Aging

Should You Go to a Retail Health Clinic?

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 08/04/2015
Last Updated: 08/04/2015

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It's a common scenario: It's after-hours or a weekend and you need to see your doctor. But the office is closed.

Or it's flu season and you can't get an appointment to see your doctor for two weeks.

Maybe you're out of town and don't have access to your regular physician. Or you don't have your own physician.

It's not exactly an emergency—your throat is scratchy and sore—but you don't want to wait to see your doctor.

More people are turning to walk-in clinics to treat acute yet minor conditions and basic complaints like sore throats, conjunctivitis, upper respiratory infections and more. Of these visits, more than 44 percent take place when physician offices are closed.

These "safety-net providers" are able to relieve the stress on emergency rooms and offer many people immediate and adequate care without an appointment and with short wait times. They're different from urgent care centers in that they are located within stores, like CVS, Target, Walmart, Walgreens and grocery chains, and they are almost exclusively staffed by physician assistants or nurse practitioners.

Retail clinics are convenient and affordable, with visits generally costing between $45 and $75, and most take health insurance. Prices are usually posted, so you know ahead of time what you'll be spending. Many also provide services like immunizations and school or camp physicals. And with pharmacists on staff, they can provide quick access to prescribed medications as well as knowledgeable advice on proper usage of both prescribed and over-the-counter drugs.

Many retail clinics are also useful in connecting people to other sources of health: foods, products and services. For instance, someone with diabetes or hypertension, who needs to be on a restricted diet and adhere to a healthy lifestyle, can have easy access to groceries, medical supplies and other equipment like pedometers and light exercise equipment.

From the time they appeared on the scene in early 2000, visits to these clinics have grown tremendously. By 2012, they recorded about 10.5 million patient visits. The number of clinics also has expanded rapidly: since 2006, their numbers have increased almost 900 percent, from 200 to 1,800.

But retail clinics do have their detractors. Groups, like the American Medical Association, raise concerns such as these:

  • They question the quality of care.
  • They are uneasy about the potential overprescribing of antibiotics.
  • They're concerned that clinics may interfere with patient-physician relationships and be a lost opportunity for preventive care.

Others feel that retail clinics are a viable alternative to care. Their arguments include:

  • Care costs less than similar care at a physician's office, urgent care center or emergency department.
  • Patients are not prescribed antibiotics more in retail clinics than in other settings, data show.
  • The majority of people who seek care at retail clinics report having no primary care physician, so there is no disruption in a relationship that doesn't exist.
  • A study that evaluated the quality of care for ear infections, pharyngitis and urinary tract infections found retail clinics were superior to emergency departments and ambulatory care facilities.

To go or not to go? Ultimately the decision rests in your hands. Perhaps you know someone who was treated in a retail clinic near you. Why not ask how their experience was?

Personally, I went to my nearby CVS for my flu shot last year because I didn't feel like driving to my doctor, about 15 miles away. I was passing right by the store and needed to go in to buy some things anyway. I'm happy to say that the specially trained pharmacist who dispensed the shot was both professional and gentle.

And being a bit needle-phobic, I especially appreciated the latter of the two.

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Comments

For several years I've gotten my flu shots at pharmacies, it is fine. They even give me a card to bring to my drys office when I next visit to notify them it was done.

Flu shots are more cost effective than at my doctor's, so we use them for that. And in an emergency...not a serious one...yes.

I like being able to use Urgent Care when needed. It's especially helpful when doctor's offices are too busy or closed.

My daughter regularly makes use of The Little Clinic inside her nearby Kroger store. She has incredible insurance so it's not a lack of adequate coverage; it's simply quicker and easier and there's no problem getting in right when she needs to.

I've gone. When I'm on vacation and get sick, I head to the nearest one.

I went to my grocery store for my flu shot. I would rather go to an urgent care center if I need to see a doctor or health care provider though for most other things.

I keep seeing these things around and have wondered about them!

I've been to stand alone clinics but not those in retail stores -- and they sound as though they could be a good choice at times. Thanks for the heads up and the good information.

Actually, I thought of going last weekend with an ear ache. I had some natural remedy here and tried it and it worked, so I didn't go. But I have heard that they do like to prescribe antibiotics at our retail walk in clinic.

I think some of these clinics near us are affiliated with local hospitals or health systems. I think my husband got a flu shot at one of these places once.

I think there are times when you can go to a retail clinic if no other options are available and your malady isn't too serious.

I found it surprising that when I went to a new urgent care center for the quadrivalent flu shot early this year, they didn't even have it. I went to Duane Reade that had it and it was inexpensive.

With all the turmoil surrounding doc visits and costs and insurance, I think these are a great option.

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