What are the pros and cons of retail clinics?

December 3, 2019 in Preventive Care  •  By Miles Varn, MD
retail clinics

Your cough hasn’t gotten better in two weeks, but your doctor’s office doesn’t have same day appointments. Or maybe you’re out of town visiting relatives when your one-year-old starts showing the signs of another ear infection. For many people, the next move would be to seek care at a retail clinic in a pharmacy, grocery store, or “big box” store like Target or Walmart. But before you make that decision, it’s wise to consider the pros and cons of seeking medical care at retail clinics.

The upside of retail clinics

The most obvious benefit of seeking care at retail clinics is convenience. Rather than having to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor, many of whom do not offer same day appointments, you can simply walk into the clinic when it’s convenient for you. In addition, retail clinics often have hours that extend beyond traditional doctor’s office hours, so you can seek care in the evening or on the weekend. These clinics are also usually located in places that are easy to reach like neighborhood shopping centers and, for clinics located within a pharmacy or in a store that also has a pharmacy, getting a prescription filled after an appointment is more convenient.

Another positive aspect of retail clinics is that they have set prices that you can explore on their websites before you receive care. These prices are often lower than what you would pay in a primary care physician’s office and are significantly lower than the costs you would incur if you sought care in an emergency room. Those lower costs may be helpful for people with high deductible health plans who are paying for a significant portion of their care out of pocket. If you do plan to use your insurance, it’s important to check and see if the clinic accepts your health plan or if the care would be considered out of network.

Choosing care from retail clinics for common, uncomplicated health problems does not have to mean sacrificing quality of care. According to one study published in the American Journal of Managed Care, the quality of care for people with ear infections, urinary tract infections, and sore throats was comparable to or superior to care received for these conditions in an emergency room or urgent care clinic.

The cons of receiving care at a retail clinic

Retail clinics often are not the best option for people who are living with multiple chronic health conditions and take several medications. They may also not be the most appropriate option for older patients because, in some cases, even care for straightforward health problems can be more complicated when patients are frail or have complex medical histories.

For these people, it’s important that anyone who treats them has a comprehensive picture of their health, including:

  • What conditions they have been diagnosed with
  • What diagnostic tests and treatments they’ve undergone
  • What medications they take and any side effects or adverse reactions they’ve experienced
  • Any allergies to medications or vaccine ingredients
  • Family health history

Primary care doctors usually have access to their patients’ complete medical records, which provides this information, while a retail clinic would not.

If you do decide to seek care at one of these clinics, there are a few things you should do:

  • Share your complete medical history with the healthcare provider who treats you. That can be easier if you have an electronic medical record.
  • Provide a list of all prescription and over-the-counter medications you take regularly.
  • Ask the provider to send your primary care physician the details of your visit, including any prescriptions.
  • Follow up with your own physician, especially if your symptoms don’t improve in a timely manner or get worse.