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When to use a Retail Clinic or Urgent Care Center

Posted Dec 27 2011 3:34pm
This past year my daughter visited a retail clinic for a strep throat and my husband visited an urgent care center for his stitches.  Both of these experiences provided excellent value and I would highly recommend retail clinics and urgent care centers for certain types of conditions.  An article written by Misty Williams in the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this month discusses when to use a drugstore clinic .

When to use a drugstore clinic

As Americans increasingly pay more out of pocket for their health care, millions are turning to retail clinics -- often located in pharmacies or grocery stores and requiring no appointment -- as a more convenient, cheaper alternative to a primary care doctor.

Typically staffed by nurse practitioners, walk-in clinics are aimed at treating minor ailments such as strep throat or ear infections. They offer weekend and evening hours for people who can’t take off work during the day or face long waits for appointments with their regular doctors.

Retail clinics first began popping up across the country in 2000 and now number roughly 1,200, according to RAND Corp., a nonprofit research group.

The benefit of these walk-in clinics, however, depends on a consumer's situation.

Because they are significantly cheaper, retail clinics often appeal to people who are uninsured and have to pay out of pocket, said RAND researcher Ateev Mehrotra.

The cost of care at walk-in clinics at stores such as CVS, Walgreens and Walmart is on average 30 to 40 percent less expensive than a physician office or urgent care center and roughly 80 percent lower than an ER, a RAND study shows. For consumers, the average cost of an ER visit for strep throat can range from $550 to $750 versus $59 at a retail clinic, data from insurance giant Aetna shows.

“[Patients] really like the predictability of the cost,” Mehrotra said.
Cost is also playing a larger role in people’s decision on where to get care as high-deductible insurance plans that require consumers to pay more out of pocket grow increasingly popular, said David Van Houtte, Aetna senior network manager who negotiates contracts with retail clinics across the country. For people with insurance, who would have the same co-pay as going to a doctor office, retail clinics are more about the convenience, Mehrotra said.

Getting time off from work can be a struggle for many people, he said.
Sujal Patel stopped by a MinuteClinic inside a Virginia-Highland neighborhood CVS on a recent afternoon after battling a nagging sore throat for three days.

Retail clinics are a big convenience, said Patel, who manages pharmacies and swung by on his lunch break.

“If I had gone to a doctor, I would have had to take time off,” he said. “Doctors don’t usually see you right away.”

At the CVS clinic, he was able to get medicines for his respiratory infection and to help him sleep right away without having to drive to a separate pharmacy.

The quality of care at retail clinics is of similar quality to regular doctor offices and other providers, Mehrotra said.

Aetna has a stringent process to credential clinics before contracting with them -- including random site visits to ensure quality is up to standards, Van Houtte said. Each clinic is overseen by physicians, and the staff is required to report back to primary care doctors for patients who have one, he said.

Retail clinics may be one solution to help curb the nation’s increasing health care costs, though they aren’t a magic bullet, Mehrotra said. Roughly 17 percent of visits to ERs could be treated at a retail clinic or urgent care center -- saving up to $4.4 billion annually, according to one RAND study.

“No one should think this is really going to solve the cost spending trends in the United States -- though some would argue every little bit helps,” he said.

Comparing costs

The overall cost of care at retail clinics is substantially less at retail clinics compared with physician offices, urgent care centers and emergency departments, according to a study by RAND Corp., a nonprofit research group. The study looked at the average cost of treating an ear infection, sore throat or urinary tract infection.
  • Retail clinic: $110
  • Physician office: $166
  • Urgent care center: $156
  • Emergency department: $570
Source: RAND Corp.

Choosing your care

Not every illness calls for a trip to the ER. Here are a few tips on what level of care makes sense depending on the problem.
  • Retail clinic: Allergies, strep throat, flu vaccinations, ear or sinus infections
  • Urgent care center: Sprains, flu, minor cuts, headaches-migraine/tension
  • Emergency department: Chest pains, trouble breathing, deep cuts, life-threatening symptoms
Source: Aetna

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