Retail Clinic Route Best Low-Cost Care?

Are doctors' visits getting too expensive for you?

You may want to try out a low-cost option known as a retail health clinic, found in a growing number of pharmacies, as people seek medical treatment on-the-fly.

Staffed by nurse practicitioners, these clinics offer treatment for minor health problems when a patient can't get an appointment or afford to go to a doctor or hospital.

Retail health clinics are available at pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, as well as supermarkets like Kroger and Publix, and may be a way for some to get medical help in the down economy.

But are these clinics are a reliable place for medical care?

"Early Show" co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez posed that question to CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton.

"The buyer has to be beware," Ashton told "Early Show" co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez Monday. "The patient has to use the same amount of caution as if looking for a doctor."

Ashton said clinics like these usually offer very basic evaluation and treatment for minor health issues such as urinary tract infections, throat or ear infections, or minor skin infections. These clinics, she said, are meant ot treat minor ailments. For simple issues, she said, the knowledge of a nurse practitioner is satisfactory.

Ashton said charges vary, but can start at $60 -- without tests or medications -- while most doctors visits start at $100. Ashton pointed out that, even during a doctor visit, patients aren't seen by the doctor the entire visit.

Although retail clinics were started on a cash-only basis (and still accept cash), many now accept insurance.

But who should -- and shouldn't -- use them?

Ashton said patients who are generally healthy and don't have a regular physician should use clinics for a minor problem. The clinics may also be a good alternative, she said, for people who are traveling and/or can't get in touch with their regular health care provider.

However, people with one or more chronic medical conditions, those with a complicated medical history, and those who have their own physician, she said, shouldn't use the low-cost clinics.

What should you do when you visit a low-cost retail clinic?

Ashton's recommendations:

1. Know your own medical history.
2. Bring a list of all medications.
3. Get a phone number in case things worsen.
4. Follow-up with your regular provider or arrange follow-up.

Ashton added patients should also get a record of their visit to the clinic to know what tests were done, what medications were recommended, and what type of medical professional saw you. She also suggested retaining a copy of all records.

Ashton said if you want to use a retail clinic, you should weigh the pros and cons.

These clinics are not for everyone, she said. The clinics may even receive financial incentives, she said, to prescribe medications if they are associated with the pharmacy. Also the nurse practitioner may not have the same medical knowledge as a physician.