What’s the Difference between Walk-in Retail Clinics and Urgent Care Clinics?
Urgent Care Operations

What’s the Difference between Walk-in Retail Clinics and Urgent Care Clinics?

With the boom of on-demand healthcare, many types of immediate care are now available to patients. However, the patient can be confused by which place of treatment they should seek. And it’s not surprising, given the similar-sounding names for varying care. How do you help patients understand the difference between walk-in retail clinics and urgent care clinics?

To help patients choose the correct care, it’s your job as an urgent care clinic to educate patients about the differences between your urgent care and the alternatives. This starts with the description of healthcare services on your website and marketing materials. Consider adding a services checklist that distinguishes between what your clinic offers vs. others for quick comparison.

Here’s a quick overview you can share with patients about the differences between walk-in retail and urgent care clinics.

Walk-in Retail Clinics

“Walk-in” is a bit of a misleading term. Both retail and urgent cares are “walk-in” or “no appointment needed”. However, retail clinics generally offer lower acuity visit types than urgent care clinics. Retail clinics fill the need for quick, less complex health needs that can be served outside the doctor’s office or urgent care.

  • Services include treatment of uncomplicated illness, such as a sore throat or earache, or preventative care like vaccines or physical exams.

  • In addition, retail clinics are generally a clinic-within-a-store model with limited space, and are staffed by nurse practitioners or physician assistants.

  • Prices and co-pays for treatments are typically lower than an urgent care visit.

  • Some screening and testing equipment may be available, but retail clinics are not equipped to handle urgent health needs, such as broken bones or lacerations.

Urgent Care or Acute Care Clinics

Urgent care or acute care clinics are also walk-in clinics, but are designed for after-hours ambulatory care. Patients are served on a first-come, first-served basis (scheduled same-day visits may be offered). Urgent care clinics fill patient needs when the doctor’s offices are closed or booked out—or for urgent health needs that do not require an emergency room visit.

  • Urgent care clinics serve more pressing injuries or illnesses that are not life-threatening.

  • Services include splinting and casting for broken bones, laceration and wound or burn repair, and asthma or bronchitis treatment. Additional services may include occupational medicine and workers’ compensation services.

  • Urgent cares have multiple exam rooms, and are staffed by nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and medical assistants. Most urgent cares have a full-time, on-site licensed physician, who often serves as a medical director.

  • Payments and co-pays for treatments at urgent cares are lower than those at the emergency room.

  • Urgent cares also offer higher-level diagnostic equipment such as x-ray and phlebotomy, but urgent cares are not equipped to do invasive surgical procedures, or procedures requiring anesthesia and an operating room.

Levels of Patient Care

While these clinic definitions are clear to those in the healthcare industry, remember patients may not know what your urgent care does in comparison to other clinics. In level of severity from lowest to highest, healthcare centers patients should visit are:

  1. Walk-in retail clinics
  2. Urgent or acute care clinics
  3. Emergency rooms or hospitals

About Urgent Care

Educating patients about healthcare services will improve their choices, and ensure correct care is given at each location. While relatively new to the healthcare scene, urgent care clinics are continuing to evolve in definition to fit patient needs. The best advice for patients is to never let them assume all urgent care clinics are created equal.

Encourage patients to research urgent care clinics and services, check insurance acceptance, read doctor reviews, and understand available diagnostic equipment options before making their choice on which clinic to visit. Additionally, patients can review if urgent care clinics are accredited or certified by the Urgent Care Association of America.

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