Urgent care vs walk-in clinic: What's the difference?

Urgent care vs walk-in clinic: What's the difference?

Urgent care center, walk-in clinic, immediate care clinic, retail clinic, convenient care clinic; the terms are used often interchangeably these days. Then there are emergency rooms, which also get tossed into the mix to further complicate the conversation. What’s worse is that owners and operators of these walk-in clinic locations don’t help themselves much because they call their businesses creative things that can promote confusion rather than clarity.

What is a Walk-in Clinic?

We are going to take a look at the most generic of them all: walk-in clinic. This is also probably the easiest. A walk-in clinic is simply a healthcare provider that allows you to come in and be seen by a healthcare provider without an appointment. This could be an urgent care, a retail clinic, even an emergency room. You can walk into any of them and – assuming you can pay or have insurance (with the exception of the emergency room) – will be seen and treated. In fact, many primary care doctors accept walk-in patients between their scheduled appointments, in which case they could also be considered a walk-in clinic.

But, for simplicity sake, we will hone in on three types of walk-in clinics: retail clinics, urgent care centers and emergency rooms and we will discuss these three progressively as it relates to the type and severity of health conditions, injuries and illnesses they treat. There are, of course, other walk-in clinics locations like employer clinics and occupational health clinics, but we will leave those for another day.

Retail Clinic

First up is a retail clinic. These healthcare providers are walk-in clinics setup inside of larger retail stores like Walmart and Target or, perhaps more commonly, at pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS. Most of these locations are designed to be affordable and efficient as possible. As such, they staff nurse practitioners (NPs) or physician assistants (PAs) rather than more costly physicians and they tend to focus on slightly less advanced medical procedures than an urgent care center. That said, services do range based on the operator of the location.

The most common services at retail clinics are assisting with minor injuries and illnesses like treatment of flu and cold symptoms, strep throat, and minor cuts and skin conditions. However, other common services include immunizations, annual physicals and health screenings. Some retail clinics are now expanding services to include chronic disease management. They all prescribe medications and most have adjacent pharmacies for pick-up convenience.

Retail clinic hours operations vary, of course, but many are open from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. Other coincide more directly with the retail store hours. It is best to call ahead or check online for accurate patient hours and expected wait times.

Urgent Care Centers

An urgent care center is one degree more advanced than a retail clinic and they staff and equip accordingly. For instance, most urgent care locations have at least one medical doctor on staff and have the physician available to see patients any time the doors are open. That said, you could still see an nurse practitioner or physician assistant rather than a doctor. Additionally, most urgent care locations have on-site X-Ray equipment and can handle more severe urgent care services such as broken bones, burns and other non-emergent conditions that retail clinics are unable to.

Urgent care facilities are very often used to fill the gap between primary care doctors and emergency rooms, thus alleviating the strain on ERs and their typically long wait times. The average patient waits 15 minutes or less at an urgent care and can expect a $35-55 insurance copy for their visit. If you don’t have insurance, the cost may be as high as $125-150 per visit. Both retail clinics and urgent care centers do require payment (or at least a copay) at the time of your visit.

While some people have a tendency to use an urgent care as a substitute for a primary care physician , it is not advisable given a primary care doctors insight into your medical records and family history. Of course, urgent care is high recommended to supplement primary care, particularly given their extended office hours, usually 8:00 am to 8:00 pm seven days a week.

Emergency Rooms

Emergency rooms are probably the most commonly understood of the three walk-in clinics discussed here so we won’t go into much detail. Most ERs are open 24 hours a day and specialize in life-threatening conditions and injuries that require more advanced technology and highly trained medical personnel and surgeons to diagnose treat. Essentially, they are equipped to handle anything that walks through their doors. They also are required by law to accept any and all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. This fact, among others, often causes ER wait times to be several hours and the average cost is many times larger than a retail clinic or urgent care.

For patients, it really is best to understand the differences – and similarities – between an urgent care and an emergency room relative to their service offerings. A recent study found that nearly 50 percent of the diagnoses at emergency rooms could be treated by urgent care centers at a fraction of the cost and wait time. And with more than 9,000 urgent care centers vs. 4,500 emergency rooms, there are likely closer, more convenient options available.

To recap, walk-in clinic is a bit of a catch-all term that encompasses many types of providers including the three discussed here: retail clinics, urgent care centers and emergency rooms. Know what you are looking for from a healthcare provider and walk into the right one.

Related Urgent Care FAQs

Is Urgent Care Covered by Insurance?
Are Urgent Cares Open on Weekends and Holidays?
Do I Need an Appointment for an Urgent Care?
How Long Do I Have to Wait at an Urgent Care?
Is Urgent Care Covered by Medicare?
How Much Does Urgent Care Cost?
Are Urgent Care Centers Expensive?

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