Should You Visit Walmart, Target, or CVS Instead of Your Doctor?

Health problems don't care what day of the week it is or if it's after 5 o'clock. And yet, ailing people once had to wait it out until the doctor's office opened or make a trip to the emergency room, where they might spend hours of time and hundreds of dollars on something routine. These days, the retail health clinic at your favorite drugstore or superstore is a quick, convenient, and often cheaper option. Here are a few reasons to seek health care at the same place you go to grab milk and toilet paper.

Convenience.

Nationwide stores including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Target, and Kroger all have in-store health clinics. The management consulting firm Accenture has forecast that the total number will approach 3,000 by 2015. CVS alone offers more than 900 and counting. Retail health clinics are open seven days a week and into the evening hours for "walk-in" patients, which means you don't need an appointment. Employees we talked to at most clinics said the average appointment lasts 15 to 20 minutes. You can leave the exam with a prescription and get it filled in-house right away. Retail clinics are also an option for children 18 months and older who have routine ailments such as an ear infection, strep throat, rash, cough, or fever.

Before you decide to write off your doctor, keep in mind that retail health clinics provide only limited services. For example, most clinics are not equipped for sprains, x-rays, stitches, or animal bites. A walk-in clinic also won't have access to medical records from your doctor's office, so if you do seek treatment at a clinic, you'll need to inform the staff of all allergies and medications. Although retail clinics can handle common illnesses and minor injuries, they are not intended to replace regular checkups.

Insurance.

You don't have to have insurance to visit a retail clinic, and you can pay cash for any service. If you do have insurance, the clinic bills your insurance company, just as your doctor's office would. Retail clinics are sometimes considered "out-of-network" providers, however, which can affect the total cost of your visit compared with your "in-network" doctor. Many insurance policies cover, for example, 100 percent of the cost of an in-network provider (usually after a co-pay) and 70 or 80 percent out of network. It is worth calling your insurance company beforehand to determine your coverage.

Cost.

If your insurance covers some or all of your visit to a retail clinic, it will be comparable to the cost of a trip to your doctor's office. This is far cheaper than going to the emergency room. A 2009 study in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine compared hundreds of cases of three common illnesses: a sore throat, an ear infection, and a urinary tract infection. The cost of treatment was $110 at retail clinics, compared with $156 at urgent care centers, $166 at doctors' offices, and $570 in emergency departments. The researchers also found the quality of care similar to a doctor's office. In many states, nurse practitioners are in charge and authorized to prescribe medication, which helps keep costs down, according to a study published last year in Health Affairs.

Retail clinics are also cheaper than doctor's offices for routine vaccinations such as flu shots, especially if you don't have insurance. Cheapism compared the cost of four common immunizations at several clinics versus a doctor's office. Walmart came in with the lowest total, at $448. The doctor's office charged $231 more, including a $34 administration fee.

CVS
Walgreens
Target
Walmart
Kroger
Doctor's
Office
Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis)
$64.99
$63.99
$60
$60.54
$85
$114*
Hepatitis A (two-dose series)
$139.99 per dose
$108.99
per dose
$109 per dose
$84.46 per dose
$120 per dose
$129* per dose
Meningitis
$144.99
$133.99
$130
$138.46
$160
$192*
HPV (three-dose series)
$234.99 per dose
$214.99 for first dose, $184.99 for second and third
$195 per dose
$164.54 per dose
$200 per dose
$244* per dose
Total
$584.96
$521.96
$494
$448
$565
$679*
*Includes $34 administration fee

Remember, though, you get what you pay for. Retail clinics typically do not have a doctor on staff, or even more than one person on the premises at a time. If you need basic care or a vaccine, the walk-in clinic may save you some cash and some time. But if you suspect you may have a larger health issue, it's probably worth it to visit a doctor who knows your medical history and can ensure you're getting the care you need.

flickr.com/danielpaquet Walk in clinics comparison walk in clinics comparison