Who should (and who should not) use a retail clinic?

DoctorGirlMost people can’t tell the difference between a retail clinic and an urgent care clinic and therefore can’t tell which one is better for them.

Urgent care clinics treat patients that have an illness or injury that require immediate attention but is not life threatening. So are retail and urgent care clinics the same thing but have different names? Actually, no, they happen to have many differences for the patient.

For starters, most retail clinics are located inside retail/grocery stores, whereas urgent care clinics are usually free-standing in a less crowded setting. Another more meaningful difference relates to staffing. Retail clinics are staffed mainly by a physician assistant or nurse practitioner. A doctor typically serves as a clinic supervisor and is available for phone consultations and performs routine chart reviews but is not required to be physically present at the clinic. Therefore, the care is provided by non-physician providers all the time. And while these providers are well trained and appropriately qualified to treat minor ailments, their scope of practice is obviously not as wide as that of a primary care or family doctor. Therefore, the important question is who can they and who can’t they treat?

Retail clinics can treat only minor illnesses such as allergies, bladder infections, bronchitis, ear infections, flu, pink eye and styes, sinus infections, strep throat, minor skin infections and rashes, poison ivy and shingles.

Urgent care centers, on the other hand, have at least one physician that is present at the clinic all the time, even though care can be delivered by a physician assistant, nurse practitioner or nurse.

Urgent care centers can treat these same minor conditions, in addition to more serious conditions such as sprains, strains, lacerations, contusions, back pain, fractures and even minor surgeries. Moreover, retail clinics treat children only 18 months and older, whereas urgent care clinics can treat all ages.

So if you have a major but non-life threatening condition, you are better off at the urgent care center. However, if you only have a minor thing, and have the choice, you can be seen much faster at a retail clinic where average wait times are 15 minutes.

If you have a complicated medical history or currently suffer from a chronic health condition such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer or asthma, chances are the providers at the retail clinic may not be able to treat you. The reason is they don’t have complete access to your medical file and your conditions are outside the scope of their practice. Moreover, these clinics are not designed to provide a long-term treatment and follow-up plan. In this case, your best bet is still your regular doctor, an urgent care clinic, or the Emergency department.

If you are traveling and have a Medicare HMO, you will more than likely have to pay the full retail price if you go to a retail clinic. However, an urgent care center would be covered with a $45 copayment. We recommend that you use your regular doctor’s care or urgent care facility first and retail clinics if necessary. So don’t be tempted just because a new MinuteClinic has opened around the corner.


To read the complete Spring 2014 Newsletter click here.