Skip the ER. Try Urgent Care and Save!

Urgent-care centers and retail health clinics are everywhere. Make not of these do's and don'ts—and your health and wallet could benefit.

retail clinics save healthcare

Ouch! You cut your hand while making dinner, and you think you might need stitches. But it's 6:30, and your doctor's office is closed. The last thing you feel like doing is getting stuck in the emergency room for hours. Fortunately, urgent-care clinics (UCCs) are made for just this kind of situation: injuries and illnesses that aren't quite serious enough for the ER but still prompt you to seek a doctor's care. 

More than 1,000 centers have opened in the United States during the past five years, and the number of clinics inside CVS, Walmart and other stores is expected to double by next year. Even better: UCCs and retail clinics can save you hundreds of dollars compared with a trip to the emergency room and most take insurance.

DO learn the basics.

UCCs are staffed mostly by family physicians and internists who can handle almost anything you'd see your usual doctor for, plus simple gynecological issues, like urinary-tract infections (UTIs) and yeast infections, as well as garden-variety complaints such as a persistent cough. But the clinics don't give you access to cardiologists or other specialists or a full array of diagnostics. So if you visit a UCC for something complex or dangerous, like a heart arrhythmia, you'll delay getting the attention you need. For those more serious conditions, head straight to a hospital ER.

Retail clinics in drugstores are staffed mostly by nurse practitioners or physician assistants, and the scope of care usually is limited to nonurgent, straightforward issues such as colds, flu, earaches, UTIs and vaccinations. That doesn't mean you won't get quality help; a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the level of care is equal to that at a physician's office or emergency department for less-serious issues.

DON'T forget to give your regular doctor a call first.

As more urgent-care facilities have entered the marketplace during the past decade, almost half of doctors' offices have introduced evening or weekend hours, and most reserve a few slots a day for last-minute appointments. If your doctor can't fit you in, tell the staff you're going to urgent care. At the least, they might be able to refer you to a good local clinic or—if your situation seems like an emergency—to the best ER.

DO check out the clinic ahead of time.

Because UCCs and retail clinics may be owned and operated by corporations, hospitals or even doctors, the services they provide can vary greatly. Check their websites or call ahead to see what kinds of ailments they're equipped to handle. For example, if you think you might have a broken bone, choose a UCC that has X-ray machines on-site (not all do).

DON'T use urgent care for chronic conditions.

You shouldn't treat a UCC or retail clinic like your regular doctor. Research shows that having one provider who knows you and your history leads to better care and can save you money, because you won't double up on tests you've already undergone or try medications that might mix poorly with what you're already taking.

This is especially important if you have a chronic condition such as asthma or diabetes. It's fine, though, if you go to a clinic for an unrelated illness or isolated urgent issues such as an asthma attack. Just bring a list of the medications you take and be sure to give a complete medical history to the provider.

DO head straight to the ER for true emergencies.

If you go to a UCC when you think you're having a heart attack, the staff will call 911 and transfer you to the emergency room—the best place for you to be in a life-or-death situation.