Can I use a retail health clinic instead of going to my regular doctor?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

What do you think of the walk-in health clinics that are popping up? Can I use them instead of going to my regular doctor?

DEAR READER:

You ask a timely question. More and more Americans are turning to retail health clinics — walk-in medical facilities located in storefronts, pharmacies, grocery stores and retailers. As of late 2015, there were more than 2,000 of them in the United State.

My one-sentence answer to your question is that it’s a shame they have become necessary. That’s because I believe the best answer is for every person to have a primary care physician who knows them, and to bring all health problems to that doctor.

So why are people going to these walk-in clinics? The most obvious reason is that we haven’t trained enough primary care doctors, and the ones we have are very busy. As a result, patients must wait longer for an appointment to see a doctor, even for simple problems.

No one likes to wait. Walk-in clinics typically will see you without an appointment (although you often won’t be seen immediately). Also, walk-in clinics frequently are open nights and weekends.

If you’re hurting and your own doctor is not available, retail health clinics have their place. They are most appropriate when you have a simple health condition that needs immediate medical attention — a respiratory or urinary tract infection, for example. But it’s important that your medical record from this visit reaches your primary care doctor, and that often doesn’t happen.

For more complicated or ongoing medical issues, health clinics are not a substitute for a doctor’s office. The doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants in those clinics probably won’t have access to your records. They won’t know what medical conditions you have, the results of your laboratory tests, the medicines you’re on or whether you have drug allergies. They need to know that information to give you good care.

“What’s the problem?” you might ask. “I can simply give them that information.” Maybe. But ask yourself if you could, right now off the top of your head, list all of your medical conditions, the results of your most recent laboratory tests, all of the medicines you are taking (and the doses), and every drug you have had an allergic reaction to.

Retail health clinics are often staffed by nurse practitioners, not doctors. Nurse practitioners are required to follow specific care guidelines.

Any time you visit a retail health clinic, get a printed copy of your health record from that visit. Health clinics usually keep good medical records. But it’s up to you to make sure those records get to your primary care doctor, so that all of your health records are in one place.

Walk-in clinics like to call themselves “convenience clinics.” They’re convenient, unless you have to wait a long time in the waiting room. However, they often don’t know anything about you and your health. And if your doctor isn’t informed about the care they give you, that’s not good for you or your doctor.

(This column is an update of one that ran originally in August 2013.)