Keenan Blog

Walk-in Clinic vs. Urgent Care: What’s the Difference?

February 12, 2019

As we hit the peak of this year’s flu season, many people are seeking care for respiratory symptoms, fever, aches and fatigue. Ahead of the season, we shared some preventive tips and ways to tell if you have a cold or the flu – or something worse.

Despite your efforts to prevent it, you may still get the flu or a bad cold. Or, maybe in the rainy or icy conditions you have a minor injury. While you are looking for quick attention, your primary doctor may not have an immediate appointment available, and you wonder that it’s not worth a time consuming and potentially expensive visit to the emergency room?

There are a couple options that are becoming more and more popular for situations like this: a walk-in clinic or an urgent care center. But what’s the difference? And which option best fits your immediate needs?

To ER or Not To ER?

First, let’s take a step back. Why not just go to the ER? There are several reasons why the hospital emergency room should often be viewed as a last resort. From an overall cost of health care perspective, ER treatment can be up to 10 times more expensive than getting the same service at an urgent care center. And high-deductible insurance plans, which are common these days, mean that you may be liable for that large expense.

Many insurance providers, in fact, now actively discourage policyholders from going to an ER with requirements like high co-pays. Also, while the hospital you visit may be “in network,” the physician who treats you may not be, again leading to an unexpected expense. Plus, a hospital with an ER may be a long distance away, and waiting times can be quite long.

So let’s take a look at urgent care centers compared with walk-in clinics.

Is It Pretty Serious?

Urgent care centers can address basic issues as well as more serious problems like stitching up cuts and treating bone fractures. Injuries of this nature are not life-threatening but do require immediate attention.

These types of centers are typically owned by a doctors group, a hospital or independent investors. Their availability usually includes extended hours and weekends. The level of staffing can include physicians, assistants, nurses, nurse practitioners and even specialists like radiologists. Lab services such as x-rays and blood tests are often provided.

Or Relatively Minor?

Walk-in clinics are usually found in an existing retail location like a pharmacy or general merchandise store. In contrast to an urgent care center, staffing is of a different level with primarily nurse practitioners. These folks can prescribe medications, so one advantage of a walk-in clinic can be the ability to fill a prescription right there on site.

The walk-in clinic option is great for minor issues like flu and cold symptoms, respiratory congestion, skin irritations, and simple cuts and sprains. They can also provide flu shots and vaccinations as well as screenings for blood pressure and diabetes.

Plan and Be Prepared

With these basic guidelines in hand, you can ascertain the level of care you need and where best to go. It’s important to know what kinds of facilities are available in your area so you’re ready to access the most appropriate option when the need arises for yourself or your family. And make sure to understand how different kinds of services and providers are covered under your health insurance plan.

If you go to a walk-in clinic or an urgent care, you may still encounter a busy waiting area filled with other sick people. If you have respiratory symptoms, or others are sniffling, sneezing and coughing around you, grab a mask. You don’t need to feel silly about wearing a mask; it really does reduce the chances of illness spreading in close quarters.

If your condition is severe, you certainly may need to head for the ER. Although the cost is higher, you’ll have access to all the services provided by the hospital. However, when seeking treatment for less critical conditions, options like urgent care centers and walk-in clinics can save you time, money and inconvenience.

About Sam Cole
Sam Cole serves as Vice President of KeenanDirect. He has more than two decades of experience in the California insurance market. He is a Lifetime qualified member of the National Association of Health Underwriter’s (NAHU) Leading Producers Round Table. For free assistance, please contact us at KeenanDirect: or 855-653-3626.