If you’ve visited a retail health clinic or an urgent care center, you may have found that it’s easier and cheaper to go there than to visit your primary care physician.

Many others have figured that out too. While only 24 percent of consumers used such clinics in 2011, more than 40 percent use them now according to a recent report from consulting firm PwC. As demand has grown, so has the number of clinics. There are some 3,000 retail health clinics in the country today—more than double the number just three years ago.

“The people who are using retail clinics more may not have been getting enough care previously,” says Martin Gaynor, a professor of economics and health policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “They may not have been going to the doctor because it was inconvenient or more expensive.” 

Because more people are now seeking care at clinics, PwC says that there has been an increase in overall healthcare spending. A March study by researchers at Rand Corp., found that the ease of accessing clinics has led to an average increase in spending of $35 per person per year. According to the study, that was partly offset by $21 in savings among those people whose visit to a retail clinic substituted for higher-priced medical care. The net result is an overall spending increase of $14 per person annually, according to the study.

Lower Your Health Costs

As clinics continue to gain popularity, medical costs could continue to rise. But there are some steps you can take to keep them down.

1. Pick up the phone. If you’re not sure whether you need to see a doctor in person, consider first getting medical advice via phone. Primary care physicians generally return patient calls for free and may be able to tell you whether it’s worth a trip to a health clinic or to your primary doctor. You could also try the advice hotline offered by your insurer (check your policy to see whether you have one) to talk to registered nurses about non-urgent questions. A growing number of insurers offer telemedicine services, in which you can virtually connect with a doctor for non-acute problems. Telemedicine consultations typically cost less than visiting a retail clinic, but studies have shown mixed results when it comes to quality of care.

2. Know the difference between retail clinics and urgent care centers. There’s a big difference between retail clinics, such as those you’d find inside a pharmacy or supermarket, and standalone urgent care centers. Retail clinics are staffed by nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants, and are best for common illnesses like a sinus infection or an upset stomach. Urgent care clinics employ doctors and are best for more acute, non-emergency problems such as broken bones or minor burns. Urgent-care centers can handle more run-of-the-mill illnesses, but they cost the same or more than visiting a doctor’s office, says Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, and co-author of the Rand study.

3. Use pre-tax dollars. Most retail clinics or urgent care visits can be paid for through a flexible spending account (FSA) or a health savings account (HSA). You can typically use a debit card connected to such accounts to pay for treatment at health clinics. Just save the receipts in case you need them at tax time.

4. Stay in network. Most of the larger retail clinics are considered in-network by big insurers, but if you’re visiting a smaller chain or have an insurance plan with an extremely narrow network, it’s worth double checking that the visit will be covered before you head out.

5. Shop around. While clinics typically provide care for less than a general practitioner, the cost of getting treatment for the same ailment can vary by clinic. The cost of a blood glucose test as part of an exam, for example, costs $5 at Walgreens and $25 at CVS.

The good news is that it’s a lot easier to compare prices across retail health clinics than it is to compare prices in almost any other area of the medical industry. “Retail health clinics are the first to allow consumers to do a true apples-to-apples price comparison,” says Ben Isgur, director of thought leadership at PwC’s Health Research Institute. 

When to Use a Retail Health Clinic