Is a walk-in clinic the answer to your sniffles?

It never fails... the weekend comes and the doctor's office is closed, and you get stricken with the plague. I'm not talking about a little sneezing and coughing and blowing your nose. (Shut up. Quit being such a baby. Go to bed.) I mean the kind of sick where you feel like you're on your deathbed, with serious coughing or other really scary symptoms. The kind of symptoms that really need to be checked out by a doctor.

Going to a hospital emergency room is stupid unless you really think your life is in danger. It's going to cost you a ton of money. You're going to wait for hours while they treat all the sicker people first. And you'll probably come out sicker than when you went in from being exposed to everyone else's germs.

So walk-in clinics and urgent care clinics are the answer, right? Well maybe, and maybe not. While they seem to be the logical choice, they're not always as cost-effective or patient-friendly as you might think. Here are some tips for deciding whether or not to go the walk-in clinic route:
  • Check on the costs. Sometimes you can get away with a small copay or a reasonable fee for your visit. Other times patients have found it's just as expensive as the emergency room. Call ahead and ask about the fees so you won't be surprised once you get there.
  • Convenience is key. You might find that a walk-in clinic is able to see you much faster than your family physician, even if you're trying to get in during normal business hours. Take advantage of the opportunity to be seen quickly.
  • Services are limited. Find out if a clinic can treat your condition or not before you go there. Broken bones may not be able to be treated if x-rays aren't available. Lab work is also often limited, so your treatment may be limited as well.
  • You might not be able to see a doctor. Walk-in clinics are often staffed primarily by nurses or physician's assistants, so don't be surprised if a doctor isn't available to see you.
  • Be careful with prescriptions. It's common to be prescribed a strong antibiotic to make sure that your illness is knocked out. That's not always the best course of treatment though, and can often be very expensive.
Whether you like it or not, a medical clinic (walk-in or otherwise) is a business and is dependent upon profits to stay open. So be prepared to pony up for your services right away. You may pay for the convenience and the weekend hours, but if you're sick enough, it's probably worth it. Just call the clinic before you go there to make sure you know if they can treat you and how much you'll have to pay. Be a proactive consumer.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.


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