Many medical clinics focus mainly on providing primary care services. However, some types of clinics do focus on specific areas of medicine.
Additionally, medical clinics can be associated with a hospital or university. Some may offer low cost or no-cost care. Others can be found within retail stores.
With such a diversity of different clinic types, how do you know which type of medical clinic may be best for your healthcare needs? Additionally, how are these clinics different from hospitals? Are there times you should go to a hospital instead of a clinic?
Keep reading to get answers to these questions and more.
A medical clinic is a type of facility that’s focused on outpatient services. Being an outpatient means that you can go home after you receive care.
Medical clinics can be operated publicly, privately, or by the government.
You often need to make an appointment to go to a medical clinic, although some clinics may also accept walk-ins. Generally speaking, you can go to a medical clinic for the following types of health-related services:
- routine medical care
- preventive care
- medical attention when you’re sick
While many clinics offer more general healthcare services, some clinics are more specialized. These types of clinics may be focused on areas like mental health, sexual health, or addiction services.
The types of medical professionals who work at a clinic depends on the specific facility. Some examples of medical professionals you may see at a clinic include:
Below, we’ll take a closer look at some of the different types of medical clinics.
Primary care clinics
Many of the clinics that you’ll encounter are primary care clinics. These types of clinics typically provide a broad level of care. The providers at primary care clinics are often general practitioners.
The types of care and services offered at a primary care clinic include things like:
- annual physicals
- laboratory testing
- screening for health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol
- treatment of mild symptoms, such as headache, cough, and sore throat
- treatment of minor injuries such as mild cuts, scrapes, or burns
Sexual health clinics
Sexual health clinics can provide a wide variety of services, including:
- access to various forms of contraception
- testing and treatment for sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV
- pelvic exams for women
- screening for cancers like cervical cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer
- vaccines for diseases like HPV and hepatitis B
- pregnancy services, such as pregnancy testing and prenatal exams
- abortion services or referrals
- counseling and referrals for infertility
- help with men’s health conditions such as erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation
One sexual health clinic you may have heard of is Planned Parenthood. However, there are many other sexual health clinics located throughout the country.
To find one near you, start by contacting your state’s
Mental health clinics
Mental health clinics aim to help individuals with various mental health conditions, which can include issues such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These clinics are staffed by professionals like psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers.
A mental health clinic can provide the following types of services:
- evaluation and diagnosis of mental health conditions
- individual, group, or family counseling
- medication prescriptions as a part of treatment
- psychiatric rehabilitation services, such as help with creating a support network, returning to the workforce, or learning daily skills
Addiction services clinics
These are outpatient facilities that help people recover from a substance use disorder. Addiction services or addiction rehabilitation clinics may be well suited to patients who:
- are willing to attend regular counseling sessions or appointments, often several times per week
- have their own reliable mode of transportation
- live in a stable environment with strong social support
Care at an outpatient addiction services clinic can vary in intensity. However, it often focuses on:
- individual or group counseling sessions
- reinforcing your support network
- drug and alcohol education
Some clinics are focused on a certain area of medicine. In these types of clinics, the healthcare professionals have training in a specific medical field.
Some examples of medical specialties that may have their own clinic can include:
- ear, nose, and throat (ENT)
- gynecology and obstetrics
- physical therapy
Community health centers
Community health centers are clinics that are supported by the federal government, specifically the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). In order to be supported by HRSA, these clinics must do the following:
- be located in a high-need area
- provide comprehensive primary care services
- supply additional resources to help promote better health, such as education, translation, and transportation services
- adjust the cost of care based on an individual’s ability to pay
- be directed by a community board
- meet other specific clinical, financial, and administrative requirements
In addition to providing primary care, a community health center may also provide access to other health-related resources. These can include pharmacies, dental care, and mental health services.
Retail clinics are clinics that are located within a retail establishment. Some examples include clinics that are located inside:
- “big box” stores like Walmart or Target
- drug stores or pharmacies, such as CVS or Walgreens
- supermarkets like Kroger or Safeway
Retail clinics are typically staffed by physician assistants or nurse practitioners. A retail clinic can provide:
- care for minor illnesses, like colds, coughs, and skin rashes
- some preventive care services, like vaccinations
- basic laboratory testing
This type of clinic often accepts walk-ins. Their hours of operation are usually similar to the parent store’s operating hours.
There are several important differences between medical clinics and hospitals. Some of the key differences include the following:
- Inpatient vs. outpatient: Medical clinics focus on providing outpatient care. Although hospitals can also provide outpatient services, they focus more on providing inpatient care. This is the type of care where you stay overnight at a medical facility.
- Type of care: You often go to a hospital to see a specialist, have surgery, or receive care for a serious illness or medical emergency. The services at medical clinics are often focused on routine, preventive, or non-emergency care.
- Size: Medical clinics are usually smaller in size and have a smaller pool of staff. Hospitals typically have a larger workforce of medical professionals, many of whom are specialized in a particular medical field.
- Cost: Going to the hospital is often more expensive than going to a medical clinic.
Now that we’ve explored the differences between a medical clinic and a hospital, let’s look at when you’d typically pay a visit to one of these facilities.
When to go to a medical clinic
- For preventive care: Preventive care includes things like having an annual physical exam, receiving immunizations, or screening for conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.
- For routine care: Examples of routine care include follow-up appointments for an existing condition or attending a therapy session at a mental health clinic.
- For non-emergency symptoms: If you’re feeling under the weather with symptoms like a cough, sore throat, or ear pain, you can go to a medical clinic for care.
- For minor injuries: You may be able to go to a clinic for minor injuries, such as muscle strains, minor cuts, or small burns.
When to go to a hospital
- To see a specialist: If you have a serious health condition, you may be referred to a specialist that’s based in a hospital. This specialist can help diagnose and treat your condition. An example of this is an oncologist for cancer.
- For surgery: Many surgeries, both emergency and non-emergency, are done in a hospital setting. While some surgeries can be outpatient, some may require a hospital stay afterward.
- For symptoms of a medical emergency: If you have symptoms of a medical emergency like a heart attack or stroke, you should seek immediate medical care at a hospital’s emergency department.
- For a serious injury: It’s important to get to a hospital’s emergency department for serious injuries, such as those sustained in a car accident or fall. Other examples include head injuries, severe burns, and serious cuts or lacerations.
- For mental health emergencies: If a person’s behavior is putting them or others at risk of harm, it’s best to get the patient to a hospital for evaluation and care.
If you have health insurance, there may still be some costs associated with going to a medical clinic. In the United States, these costs can depend on your specific type of insurance, and may include the following:
- Deductible: The amount you must first pay out-of-pocket before your insurance starts covering the cost of health services.
- Coinsurance: The percentage that you pay out-of-pocket after your insurance pays for a covered health service.
- Copay: A set amount that you pay after receiving covered health services.
- Other out-of-pocket costs: Your insurance may not cover specific services. In this case, you may be responsible for paying for the full cost of those services.
In general, medical clinics accept most types of health insurance. However, if you’re unsure about what your insurance covers, it’s always a good idea to contact your insurance provider to find out what’s covered before getting care at a clinic.
There may be resources available to help with the cost of medical care at a clinic. Some of these options include:
- Community health centers: These types of clinics offer primary care services where the cost of care is based on your ability to pay. Find a community health center near you using the HRSA search tool.
- Free or charitable clinics: Some medical clinics offer primary care or other types of services for no cost or low cost. The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics has a search tool to help you find a clinic in your area.
- Medicaid: Medicaid is a program that helps people with low income pay for healthcare. Each state has different eligibility requirements and coverage. To learn more, contact your state’s Medicaid office.
- State programs: Some states may have programs in place to help with access to no cost or low-cost health services. To find out more, contact your state’s
Department of Public Health.
Medical clinics are quite diverse. While many focus on primary care, others offer more specialized services. These can include things like sexual health, mental health services, and addiction recovery.
Clinics typically provide non-emergency outpatient care that’s routine or preventive. Although hospitals can also provide outpatient services, they focus more on providing inpatient care. You’ll typically go to a hospital for specialist care, surgery, or for more serious, life-threatening conditions.
Medical clinics typically accept most types of insurance. If you’re unsure about what types of services are covered, contact your insurance provider before visiting a medical clinic.
There are also other ways to get help with medical costs. Some options include going to a community health center, finding a free or charitable clinic, or applying for Medicaid.