Like most Americans, you have a health insurance plan now, and chances are it’s a new one.
Of course, you’ll want to review your plan policy thoroughly (focus on costs, in-network health care providers and deductibles, for starters).
One other key area? Try visits to smaller, retail-style health care clinic (often nicknamed “minute clinics” due to the quick, in-and-out services credited to such health care centers.)
For health care consumers, retail health clinics offer some significant benefits — if they’re used correctly.
Retail health clinics gain popularity
A recent study of 2,000 U.S. minute clinics by Rand published in Health Affairs found that consumers tended to visit smaller clinics for non-urgent reasons (for smaller health care afflictions like sinusitis or the common flu.) That helped drive up consumer health care costs by a nominal $14 per year, per consumer.
“While retail clinics do allow some users to lower their medical spending, the new use of medical services outweighed the savings from the substitution we observed among the large group of people we studied,” notes Scott Ashwood, lead author on the RAND report.
Take away the low-urgency options, though, and retail clinics offer consumer price advantages.
Aside from perhaps the biggest advantage — timely access to a health care professional in the event you can’t see your primary physician right away — other studies show that, done correctly, you can cut health care costs at a retail health clinic.
Consider a 2015 study from Manat, Phelps & Phillips, LLC that shows consumers especially save by replacing emergency care facilities with minute-clinic visits. This from the study:
"To date, more than 100 partnerships between retail clinics and health systems have been formed, linking care between retail sites and primary care medical homes, expanding after-hours care options and enabling health systems to provide patients with alternatives to emergency departments. In fact, up to 27 percent of ED visits could be handled appropriately at retail clinics and urgent care centers, offering cost savings of $4.4 billion per year."
5 tips for your retail-clinic visit
When you do visit a retail health care clinic, go in prepared with a plan — one that ensures good quality care, but at a value-oriented price.
To get that job done try these five tips:
1. Avoid paying cash. "Don't pay cash money at a retail clinic,” says Monya De, an M.D. and internal medicine specialist based in Los Angeles. “You need to itemize your health care expenses for tax purposes, and credit card statements are good for this task.”
2. Choose your visits carefully. Go when you cannot get hold of your doctor, De says. “Prescription refills for longstanding medications are a good example — you are leaving on a trip, and your doctor is booked solid.” Aim for early-in-the-morning visits, when clinic traffic is lowest, and there are few backups.
3. Keep your doctor involved if you want good continued care. “You need to be the one to get the minute-clinic notes and put them in front of your doctor for a more full medical assessment,” De adds. “Your doctor will then incorporate that step in your care into her ongoing management.”
4. Treat the visit as you would a physician visit – and bring the right paperwork. According to the Harvard Medical School, in a recent edition of its Harvard Health Letter, be prepared when visiting a health care clinic. “If you do visit a retail health clinic, even for a flu shot, be sure to bring a complete list of your health conditions, your allergies and your medications,” the Letter states. “Your regular doctor should be able to provide the list for you. If possible, ask the clinic to send details of the visit to your doctor (but make sure to ask).”
5. Take advantage of “big box” retail clinics. Retail giants like CVS and Walmart now offer walk-in medical care facilities (Minute Clinic for CVS and HealthCare Clinic for Walmart.) Take advantage of low-cost treatments — a wellness visit is $59 at Walmart, while a cholesterol screening at CVS is $59 to $69, the Harvard Health Letter reports. Also, you get the built-in advantage of having your prescriptions filled on site, saving you a trip to the pharmacy.
According to a recent study by Accenture, U.S. health care walk-in clinics will exceed 2,800 by 2017 (there are about 2,000 in operation right now.) Those clinics will handle up to 25 million patients annually, up from 16 million in 2014.
Make no mistake, retail health care clinics are here to stay, and more and more insurance plans are covering them. Thus, it’s in your best interest to learn the ropes and use those “minute clinic” visits wisely.