“Walk-in clinic” is a loosely defined term that can encompass some non-traditional medical care facilities. The common thread, as the name suggests, is the fact that these institutions accept people who come in without an appointment. They can be urgent care facilities that treat immediate medical needs that don’t quite warrant a trip to the emergency room. Or, the term can refer to convenient care kiosks or departments housed within pre-existing businesses. An example would be a pharmacy, supermarket, shopping mall, or drug store that also provides health screening, preventive care, vaccinations, and other services. Depending on how you categorize it, community health centers may also fall within the umbrella definition of a walk-in clinic.
No matter how exactly you define it, one thing is clear: the walk-in clinic is changing the way people in the United States receive medical care and the way they interact with the medical profession. In 1995, there were less than 1,000 medical centers in the United States that didn’t require an appointment. Twenty years later, in 2015, there were nearly 11,000 such facilities. The rapid growth is mainly spurred by the twin factors of convenience and cost. First, most urgent care and retail facilities are open past five in the afternoon, and many are also open on weekends. For people who work regular nine-to-five jobs Monday through Friday, these hours are a huge advantage.
To see a traditional general practitioner, a patient ordinarily has to schedule an appointment in advance and miss part of their workday to receive care. At a walk-in clinic, a patient has a broader range of hours and can fit their visit around their schedule, rather than rearrange their schedule to accommodate the visit. Further, because many of these medical care centers are co-located with retail locations, patients can tick a few items off their shopping list while they wait. Another convenience is that a person can receive care the same day. With traditional physicians, even regular patients might have to wait weeks before they can get an appointment. For someone suffering from, for example, an ear infection, immediate diagnosis and medicine are necessary to alleviate the pain.
Cost is a more tenuous advantage since both the purpose of the visit and the level and type of insurance coverage can change the calculus. On average, a visit to a primary-care physician runs around $120 while a visit to a retail care center only costs around $75. Urgent care can be slightly more expensive than going to a clinic because they have an attendant MD on hand at all times, and doctors demand higher salaries. A study, however, showed that urgent care is still slightly less expensive when factoring in the cost of prescriptions.
General practitioners contend that you can’t put a dollar value on the personal relationship between a doctor and those she treats. This is undoubtedly true, but with the cost of health care continuing to rise, intangibles might have to take a backseat to budgetary restraints.