Walk-in Clinics Are Growing Fast, Increasing Consumer Options

Published March 1, 2008

Walk-in clinics are quickly becoming one of the fastest-growing providers of health care, and experts say a major reason for their expansion is that they offer consumers a convenient, affordable choice.

Kent Lillemoe, chief financial officer of Minute Clinic, one such facility, says patients have embraced walk-in clinics.

“It’s a cost-effective solution to the acute care and screening type of activities that people want to do on a higher-frequency basis,” Lillemoe said. “We offer an alternative to urgent care or the emergency room as well. We offer a very convenient and cost-effective way of delivering.”

More Locations, Longer Hours

Patients don’t need an appointment to use the clinics. Instead, they can simply show up at one of the facilities, which are often located at retail centers such as Wal-Mart or Walgreens and open longer than traditional doctors’ offices.

Washington’s Everett Clinics, for example, has eight locations open for business from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the year except Christmas. Clinic managers plan to extend those hours further in the near future, said Everett Clinics Media and Communications Manager April Zepeda.

Zepeda said Everett is seriously considering expanding its presence because of the patients’ response.

“Last year we saw a 17 percent growth rate in our walk-in clinics,” Zepeda said. “The walk-in clinics are the fastest growing part of our organization. [Patients] are clearly just coming back to the walk-in clinics again and again.”

Cost Transparency, Shorter Waits

Walk-in clinics offer better cost transparency than most health care services. Many post on the door prices for services such as an appointment or a flu shot, Lillemoe said.

Though walk-in clinics do not completely replace emergency rooms, urgent care centers, or doctors’ offices, they do provide an affordable alternative for some services, according to Lillemoe.

“The best way of looking at a retail-based clinic,” Lillemoe said, “is to think of it as a limited scope of service for high-volume but relatively low-complexity services in health care.”

Zepeda said an increasing number of patients opt to visit a walk-in clinic instead of an emergency room, and about three to five patients each day from the eight walk-in clinics get transported to the emergency room by ambulance.

Patients at a walk-in clinic wait about half the time they would wait in the emergency room, and the treatment is often less costly, Zepeda said.

“We are very disciplined in our approach, so we can ensure we are doing the right thing for the patient in our clinic,” Zepeda noted.

Innovative Technology

In addition, walk-in clinics have responded to market demand for telemedical techniques by integrating technology into their operations.

Everett Clinics, for example, is working to get a live wait time estimate online so patients can predict the wait before going in, said Zepeda.

Minute Clinic, according to Lillemoe, often uses electronic medical records, along with the usual letters or faxes, to inform a patient’s regular doctor of walk-in visits.

Patients aren’t the only ones who are satisfied with the choice walk-in clinics offer, Zepeda said. Doctors at the clinics treat a wide variety of cases each day and find themselves enjoying their work.

The Minute Clinic, like other walk-in clinics, bases clinical procedures on established best practice guidelines to help ensure the highest quality of service, Lillemoe said.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.