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What’s the difference between the doctor’s office, urgent care and the retail walk-in clinic?

What’s the difference between the doctor’s office, urgent care and the retail walk-in clinic?

Posted Feb 26, 2015 by Author


So you have health insurance, with the personalized, laminated card to prove it. On the healthcare landscape are the doctor’s office, the urgent care center and the walk-in clinic at a retail store. What is the difference between these organizations?

Here’s a handy guide that defines what they do, so you can make the best decision when you need a checkup or are ill or hurt.

Doctor’s office

Your doctor, or primary care physician, is a compass. Primary care physicians provide care if you are ill, hurt or in pain. They are also there to prevent you from getting sick by providing physicals, mammograms and other preventive health services.

You develop relationships with them so they can:

  • Educate you by promoting wellness and preventing illness
  • Acquaint themselves with you and your health history
  • Provide a first line of defense with diagnosis and treatment of sickness, injury, pain or abnormality
  • Help you monitor and manage chronic conditions
  • Coordinate your care by referring you to and partnering with specialists when your condition is outside their scope

Urgent care center

For the days and hours that primary care physician offices are closed, urgent care centers provide easy-access quality healthcare.

Urgent care centers are designed for patients whose illnesses or injuries don’t present as life–threatening, but who can’t wait until a primary care physician can treat them. Very often, they are used to fill the gap between primary care physicians and emergency rooms, thus alleviating the strain on emergency rooms and their typically long wait times.

An urgent care center is highly recommended to supplement primary care, due to office hours that extend well into the evening and through the weekend. Most urgent care locations have on staff at least one medical doctor, who is available to see patients any time the doors are open. That said, you might see a nurse practitioner or physician assistant rather than a doctor. Additionally, most urgent care locations have on-site x-ray equipment and can handle more severe urgent care services such as broken bones, burns and other conditions that a walk-in retail clinics cannot.

The average urgent care patient waits 15 minutes or less to see a provider, and can expecta per-visit $35 to $55 insurance copay.

While some may tend to use an urgent care as a substitute for a primary care physician, it is not recommended, given a doctor’s insight into your medical records and family history. However, if you have a situation that you believe cannot wait until your doctor’s office is open, an urgent care visit may be prudent.

Walk-in retail medical clinic

Typically staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, walk-in clinics are set up inside of larger retailers like Target, which runs the Minute Clinic, or at pharmacies like Walgreens or CVS.

Though services are based on the operator of the location, walk-in medical clinics specialize in minor injuries and illnesses like treatment of flu and cold symptoms, strep throat, and minor cuts and skin conditions, and tend to focus on less advanced medical procedures than an urgent care center.Some walk-in clinics administer vaccinations, too, and offer annual physicals and health screenings. All prescribe medications, and most have pharmacies on-site for convenience.

While clinic hours vary, many coincide directly with retail store hours. Call ahead or check online for accurate patient hours and expected wait times. And check with your insurer to ensure it includes a particular walk-in clinic as a provider.

Walk-in clinics will probably save you money compared to doctor or urgent care appointments, yet don’t compromise on care. "It would be cheaper to go to a (walk-in clinic) than it is to go to a doctor," says Dave Keller, chief sales officer of IHC Specialty Benefits. "The difference in cost could be $40 vs. $84 or more." While an urgent care clinic is an option, the charge may be twice as much as a doctor’s office, he adds.

An emergency?

Call 911 or get to the nearest emergency room (ER) right away, if you or someone you know is experiencing:

  • Difficulty breathing or choking
  • Any type of severe pain
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Broken bone
  • Coughing up or throwing up blood
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Bleeding that doesn’t stop

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