Should you use a retail health clinic?

They're convenient and affordable, but they don't replace a relationship with a primary care physician.

retail health clinic

Published: February, 2016

Walk into a drugstore, supermarket, or "big box" store these days, and you'll find more than prescriptions, food, and household goods. Many now feature health clinics. They're part of the big trend of making health care more convenient. "Twenty years ago you had to go to an emergency department if you got sick and needed immediate care. Now we have an explosion of options, such as retail health clinics," says Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a researcher on the topic and an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School.

The clinics

Retail health clinics began showing up about 15 years ago. Today, there are about 2,000 clinics across the United States, mostly in large retail chain settings. A typical clinic is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, and is staffed by a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. Clinics offer all kinds of health services—everything from treating minor illness like a cold, pinkeye, or a urinary tract infection to providing physicals, health screenings, lab work, smoking cessation help, and vaccinations.

The pros

Retail health clinics have many perks. They're easy to get into, with extended hours and no appointments necessary.

These clinics list their prices for services right on their websites. For example, a wellness visit is $59 at Walmart. A cholesterol screening at CVS is $59 to $69. "We have found in our data that clinics are 30% to 40% cheaper than a doctor's office visit, and 80% cheaper than an emergency room visit," says Dr. Mehrotra. The clinics take both private insurance and Medicare.

Does the lower price translate into poor-quality care? "We've found that the quality of care at retail clinics is equal to or superior to some doctor's offices, because the clinics are more likely to follow national guidelines of care," says Dr. Mehrotra.

The cons

Despite all the perks, retail health clinics may not be right for everyone. "Health care is different for older adults. The care you'll need for even a simple problem might be more complicated. For example, a urinary tract infection will affect an older woman much differently than a younger woman, putting the older woman at risk for dehydration, confusion, falls, and even sepsis," says Dr. Mehrotra. And if you have a chronic health condition, a simple illness might signal something bigger, which only the primary care physician may know about.

Geriatrician Dr. Suzanne Salamon is concerned that when one of her patients goes to a retail health clinic, details of the visit might not be sent to her. While the clinics offer the service, not everyone takes them up on it. "The risk with that is, scattered care from multiple places can lead to mix-ups," says Dr. Salamon, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. "And if people don't bring their complete medication lists to a clinic, the clinic may prescribe something that will interact with medications they're taking."

What you should do

A report from the American College of Physicians published online Oct. 13, 2015, by Annals of Internal Medicine maintains that the clinics are fine for a short-term illness or for a backup when you can't see your doctor, but they should not replace a long-term relationship with a primary care physician. "Going to a retail clinic is fine for minor issues like a flu shot or a sore throat, in particular if you're healthy," says Dr. Mehrotra.

If you do visit a retail health clinic, even for a flu shot, be sure to bring a complete list of your health conditions, your allergies, and your medications. Your regular doctor should be able to provide the list for you. Ask the clinic to send details of the visit to your doctor. And consider a follow-up appointment with your doctor when you have time, so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to keeping you healthy.

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