It's 9:00pm and your dad has accidentally burned himself making a late night pot of pasta. His primary care doctor's office is closed, but his injury is not severe enough to merit a visit to the ER—a trip to your local retail health clinic might be in order.

The number of elderly adults turning to retail clinics—medical treatment centers based in retail stores, such as Target and Walgreens, also known as "minute clinics"—for non-emergency medical care is growing rapidly; increasing from 7.5 percent to 15 percent in just three years, according to the American Geriatrics Society (AGS).

And these store-based care providers are starting to respond to the aging population's accelerating affinity for their services by offering medical amenities that cater specifically to elders. For example, Medicare beneficiaries can now go to the Take Care Clinics inside certain Walgreens stores to receive their annual wellness exam for free. Going for a yearly wellness visit is just one of the ways an elder can take advantage of their Medicare benefits.

But are these clinics as safe and effective as their more traditional counterparts? When should an elder visit a retail clinic as opposed to their doctor's office, or the emergency room?

These questions might be difficult to answer, given the lack of available scientific data about retail-based healthcare providers, according to Sue Maxwell, system director of gerontology at Lee Memorial Health in Fort Myers, Florida. "These clinics are so new that people really haven't had the chance to measure their outcomes," she says.

What caregivers and their loved ones can do, however, is take a look at the pros and cons of these clinics, as well as what types of ailments they specialize in treating, and then make an informed decision about when to make use of these new medical care resources.

The pros: quick and convenient

It's relatively easy to pinpoint the main appeal of retail healthcare.

As many Americans—and Medicare beneficiaries in particular—find it increasingly difficult to obtain timely access to routine medical care, the obvious benefit of these clinics is their convenience.

Most retail healthcare providers accept Medicare beneficiaries (and some also take people with Medicaid), are open seven days a week and have evening and weekend hours. They typically boast shorter wait times; which makes them an attractive option for elders suffering from an immediate health issue that doesn't require a trip to the emergency room.

Another advantage is the ever-growing range of healthcare services provided by retail care centers.

In addition to providing care for immediate needs, such as burns, cuts and allergies, some clinics offer diabetes and cholesterol screening services, as well as routine vaccinations (flu, hepatitis A and B, meningitis, etc.) and certain lab tests (mononucleosis, strep throat, urine dip stick).

Maxwell feels that retail care centers can offer elders and their caregivers an additional benefit in the form of much-needed healthcare education. "Retail clinics can help people drastically improve their health literacy," she says, adding, "Baby boomers are very demanding. We want to stay young and vibrant and active. We want to have access to quick, accurate health information."

Given that doctors have increasingly less and less time to spend talking with their patients during visits, retail clinics may offer an opportunity to bridge the potentially dangerous information gap that can occur when an individual has unanswered questions about their conditions or their medications.

According to Maxwell, care providers at local retail clinics can provide invaluable information on such topics as: learning to distinguish between medical issues that require emergency room care and which do not, as well as how to properly follow instructions for how to manage their medications and prescriptions.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

The cons: lack of quality and coordination

The realm of retail health care does have its drawbacks; especially for older adults struggling to manage chronic health conditions.

Store-based clinics are typically staffed by a combination of nurse practitioners and physician assistants, not board-certified doctors. This casts considerable doubt on the quality and consistency of care provided in these settings.

While typically not a problem for younger people who are healthy and hale, care that is uncoordinated or inconsistent can present problems for the elderly.

"Retail clinics can't—and shouldn't—take the place of an older adult's primary care provider or medical specialists," says the AGS in a press release. Primary care doctors and geriatricians play an essential role in managing an elder's health.

Indeed, a recent study conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that individuals of any age who have a "medical home"—defined as a designated primary care doctor who develops an individualized treatment plan and coordinates their care—were more likely to engage in important preventative care measures (for example, getting an annual flu shot), and feel more comfortable managing their chronic health conditions.

Are retail clinics safe?

Maxwell does admit that, since the retail clinic model of delivering medical care is still considered to be in its infancy, not much has been done in terms of setting forth formal regulations and standards of care. However, she feels that this method of providing medical care is probably pretty reliable. "A big company such as Walgreens or CVS isn't going to open up something that isn't safe," she says.

Still, the AGS advises aging adults to refrain from frequenting retail health clinics too often. Clinics should only be utilized for "simple" care needs, such as:

  • Allergies
  • Treatment of the cold or flu
  • Minor cuts and burns
  • Ear and sinus infections

Things to keep in mind when seeking care in a retail setting

Any time your loved one visits a retail clinic, the AGS reminds you to be sure to:

  • Bring along a comprehensive list of the medications they are taking (both prescription and over-the-counter), complete with dosage information.
  • Notify the staff of any allergies they have, or issues with the medications they are currently on.
  • Inquire about payment options. As mentioned above, some clinics take Medicare, while others do not.
  • Obtain a personal hard copy of the record of your loved one's visit for your personal files, and be sure that you or your loved one gives the clinic permission to send a copy of the record to their primary care doctor.