Walk-in clinic © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Basics

Are walk-in clinics good for you?

Consumers' needs for timelier, more-affordable health care has led to an explosion of such medical offices. But the clinics come with limitations and potential drawbacks.

By SmartMoney

Waiting a week to see his doctor for a sore throat isn't Dan Maffetone's idea of proper health care. Neither is waiting for hours in an emergency room and paying hefty co-insurance fees, especially given that he's responsible for 10% of his emergency-room costs.

So for the past six years, every time a minor ailment like a cold, rash or upset stomach has struck, the 58-year-old investment adviser from Long Island, N.Y., has headed to a nearby walk-in clinic, where he can see a doctor within half an hour. It's not only fast and convenient, but with a $15 co-payment, it's inexpensive as well.

"It's kind of a first line of defense," Maffetone says. "If you have something, you want a doctor to look at it and make sure it isn't something serious to be looked at further by your (regular) doctor."

Walk-in clinics, also called retail health clinics, can be found in strip malls, megastores and drugstores. They've been around for years but didn't start proliferating until early 2006, when corporations such as CVS, Walgreens, Target and Wal-Mart got into the business.

By the end of 2007, there were 921 walk-in health clinics nationwide, compared with just 129 at the start of 2006, according to Merchant Medicine, an industry consultancy. Within the next five years, the number is expected to soar to 3,000.

Behind this trend is the fact that access to timely and affordable health care is becoming ever more difficult to obtain. In a recent survey conducted by the Massachusetts Medical Society, only 42% of the patients who had an appointment with a primary-care physician last year said they were able to see a doctor within a week of contacting the office.

That's a sizable decrease from 53% in 2006 -- but not surprising, given that more doctors these days choose to specialize rather than go into primary care, which pays significantly less than other medical fields.

"The genesis of (walk-in clinics' popularity) is the desire of the consumer for faster, cheaper and more accessible primary care," says David Chin, the lead partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers' Health Research Institute, which in a recent report distinguished retail health clinics as one of the top eight health care trends for 2008.

Some doctors are taking note. Dr. Jim King, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, says his practice has developed a fast-track program that allows patients with a problem they would typically treat at a walk-in clinic -- say, a sinus infection -- to see a doctor on the same day and within 30 or 40 minutes of coming in. He also has extended his hours to 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and keeps several appointment times open so patients who call with a cold or other problem can be seen that same day.

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"It's a way to compete (with walk-in clinics)," King explains. "I know several practices are looking at doing things like that to improve the convenience for our patients and become patient-centered."

Until that day arrives, a walk-in clinic may be a good place to go for small health issues such as a common cold or a stomach bug. But before you go, be aware that these clinics come with limitations and potential drawbacks.

The menu is scarce

Walk-in clinics can treat a limited number of conditions, often regulated tightly by state-determined standards.

"Most of these clinics are set up to take care of minor medical problems, such as colds, sore throats and respiratory-type illnesses," King says.

The clinics don't do lab work or X-rays, so if you walk in with a more serious or chronic condition, you may be turned away and referred to a physician anyway. (Regulations vary by state. Check with your state's department of health for specifics.)

Continued: The doctor isn't always in

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