Navigating Retail Health Clinics, from the March 2016 Harvard Health Letter

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Retail health clinics are fine for a short-term illness or as a backup, but they should not replace a long-term relationship with a primary care physician.

The hot trend of making health care more convenient is showing up in more and more local drugstores and big box chains in the form of retail health clinics, reports the March 2016 Harvard Health Letter. “Twenty years ago you had to go to an emergency department if you got sick and needed immediate care. Now we have an explosion of options, such as retail health clinics,” says Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a researcher on the topic and an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School.

Retail health clinics have many perks. They’re easy to get into, with extended hours and no appointments necessary, and they’re staffed by a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. The clinics offer all kinds of health services—everything from treating minor illness like colds, pinkeye, or urinary tract infections to providing physicals, health screenings, and vaccinations—and the prices are often more affordable than other options. “We have found in our data that clinics are 30% to 40% cheaper than a doctor’s office visit, and 80% cheaper than an emergency room visit,” says Dr. Mehrotra.

Does the lower price translate into poor-quality care? “We’ve found that the quality of care at retail clinics is equal to or superior to some doctor’s offices, because the clinics are more likely to follow national guidelines of care,” says Dr. Mehrotra.

Despite all the perks, retail health clinics may not be right for everyone. A report from the American College of Physicians published online Oct. 13, 2015, in Annals of Internal Medicine maintains that the clinics are fine for a short-term illness or as a backup when people can’t see their doctors, but they should not replace a long-term relationship with a primary care physician. Dr. Mehrotra agrees.

Read the full-length article: “Should you use a retail health clinic?"

Also in the March 2016 issue of the Harvard Health Letter:

  •     The health benefits and risks of owning a pet
  •     Are prescription pain pills worth the risk?
  •     How to build a better bladder and stay dry

The Harvard Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free)


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Kristen Rapoza
Harvard Health Publications
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