Walk-In Clinics: Convenience and Savings for Families

doctor looking at child's throatA welcome trend in recent years has been the advent of retail health clinics, also known as walk-in clinics. They go by brand names such as MinuteClinic, RediHealth, and TakeCare. While they tend to be in suburban areas, they are spreading to many markets across the country. According to industry analyst Merchant Medicine, states such as Illinois and California have more than 70 such locations each, and the overall growth trend has been steady.

These locations have business models that greatly reduce the cost of delivering care. They typically lease space from large brick-and-mortar companies, like drug stores or retail stores, keeping costs low. They employ Physician Assistants to deliver the care, who work alone and do everything from treating you to printing your bill. They also limit the number of services that they treat for, so they don't have to buy expensive equipment or stock supplies that won't be used for weeks.

The cost savings can be dramatic, with services sometimes costing half of what they would at an urgent care, and perhaps 10% of the cost of being treated in an emergency room. MinuteClinic, for example, charges $59 for an ear infection. Being treated at an urgent care would likely cost $100 - $125, and going to an ER would almost certainly cost $150 or more, potentially much more.

For those who have high deductible health plans, no insurance, or are trying to make a plan limit go further, these retail sites are a great way to be treated cost-effectively for common services such earache, sore throat, vaccination, or common skin conditions.

In order to help you identify the cost and benefit of using a retail health center or walk-in clinic such as RediHealth, TakeCare, or MinuteClinic, the table below provides a comparison. Listed is a common ailment or service, and then the cost to seek the care in three different settings: Retail, Doctor's Office, Urgent Care, and Emergency Room.

For sake of comparison, the sources of this table are MinuteClinic's nationwide price list, and a 2005 Minnesota study on common health care costs, adjusted for likely medical price inflation.

Common Health Care Costs

Condition Retail   Doctor's Office Urgent Care ER
Ear ache $59         $95    $135 $184
Sore throat $74         $138    n/a $495
Cold/bronchitis $59         $97    n/a $220
Mono Test $69         $185    n/a n/a

As you can see, there is a clear cost-saving from going to retail health locations for common services. However, a part of being a wise consumer of healthcare, consider the following:

  • If you think you'll want to see your doctor anyway for the ailment or service, simply see your doctor instead of paying for two services (retail and doctor's office)
  • Keep in mind that many retail health locations are not networked to your physician or clinic -- the service performed will never be part of your medical record unless you remember to tell your physician during your next visit.
  • Some insurers consider retail health "out of network", meaning you may be better off paying a $20 copay at your doctor's office than the $59 for an ear ache exam at MinuteClinic.
  • Be sure to compare the exact services provided for more complex care. For example, MinuteClinic offers a low-cost diabetes screening, but if you are a chronic diabetes patient, your doctor may prefer that you have a more thorough battery of tests to manage the disease.

HealthHarbor is a consumer healthcare website whose mission is to help people become smarter consumers of healthcare and health insurance. They offer advice and articles as well as interactive tools to help you be a more informed healthcare consumer.

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