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Walk-in Medicine?

What do you think of these new walk-in clinics linked to drug stores or Wal-Marts? Are they good alternatives to a doctor’s visit or the emergency room?
Answer (Published 12/1/2006)

From what I’ve read, the trend toward walk-in clinics is accelerating. These clinics, staffed by nurse practitioners, not doctors, are billed as low cost, convenient options for people with such common ailments as ear infections, sore throats and allergy symptoms. They’re open evenings and weekends, when doctors’ offices usually are shut up tight, and some post their prices so that you won’t be surprised when you get the bill. I’ve read that charges average between $45 and $75. So far, there are only about 150 walk-in clinics nationwide, but more are slated to open in the coming year.

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On the plus side is the fact that you can save money (most of the clinics accept health insurance, so you’ll just have to make the co-payment you would normally give your physician). They’re convenient, too – you probably can get in and out faster than you would if you were visiting a doctor’s office. This is great if all you need is a flu shot, a diagnosis and a prescription (nurse practitioners can write prescriptions for antibiotics).

The clinics aren’t your best option for more serious medical problems such as broken bones, chest pain, or injuries that might require x-rays or stitches. You’ll be better off phoning your physician, calling an ambulance or having someone drive you to the nearest hospital emergency room. And if you are being treated for a chronic disease, I wouldn’t depend on a walk-in clinic.

I can see that convenience and cost of the walk-in clinics have great appeal, particularly for the uninsured. We’ll have to wait and see how their proliferation will affect the medical system – and how responsibly they fulfill their purpose. It will be interesting to someday compare the referral and prescribing practices of physicians with those of the clinics (particularly the ones affiliated with drug stores).

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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