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What is the Difference Between a Family Doctor and Walk-In Clinic

April 20, 2024 • read

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What is the Difference Between a Family Doctor and Walk-In Clinic

Navigating Canada’s healthcare system can be difficult at times, and knowing the differences between family doctors and walk-in clinics or when to choose one over the other can be added challenges. You may be inclined to go to a walk-in clinic if you can’t get in to see your doctor, or if you don’t have a family doctor yet. Before choosing between a walk-in clinic and your family doctor’s office, we have created this guide to highlight the differences between these types of clinics, and how to access the most appropriate care you need. 

What is the difference between a family doctor and a walk-in clinic? 

Your healthcare needs and circumstances are unique to you and may differ from day to day. Where you seek medical care will depend on these circumstances and needs. There is a time and a place for both clinic types; family doctor vs. walk-in clinic. 

If you have a family doctor, then most of your care needs can often be met in their office without needing to use a walk-in clinic. However, there may be circumstances from time to time, where a walk-in clinic may better meet your needs. 

Having a family doctor provides you with continuity of care that is comprehensive in nature seeing everything from preventative care, new illnesses or injuries, or complex chronic health conditions. Most of the care you receive from a family doctor is covered under your provincial health plan. A walk-in clinic does not require you to have a family doctor or a health card, but they may limit the scope of their providers to focus their attention on minor illnesses and injuries and have a cost associated with your visit for anyone without a health card. 

A family doctor will provide you with: 

  • Continuity of care with the physician knowing your past medical history, family history, and lifestyle 
  • Comprehensive care for all of your care needs including unexpected illnesses and injuries, health and injury prevention like cancer screening, or more complex or chronic disease management like diabetes or chronic pain
  • Appointments that are scheduled in advance or in some occasions booked the same day 
  • Limited hours of availability, but if you have an appointment you will be seen

Walk-in clinics on the other hand will most likely deliver: 

  • Potentially a new provider each time, who may be unfamiliar with your health history or recent investigations that may be relevant to your presenting concern
  • Convenience of evening and weekend availability, with first come, first served appointment times for you to wait your turn 
  • Risk of being turned away before being seen if the maximum number of patients seen that day has been met 

What is the purpose of a walk-in clinic? 

A walk-in clinic is designed to bridge the gap when there is a shortage of family doctors. This comes in handy with an estimated 1 in 5 Canadians not having a family doctor or primary care provider according to a 2023 National Survey. This leaves many Canadians turning towards walk-in clinics for acute illnesses as well as their routine healthcare needs. These clinics may also provide access to immediate care for people who cannot get in to see their family doctors when they need it. 

Walk-in clinics can be run very similar to a family doctor’s office, such that they may work in a team and have a set number of appointments. These appointments are first come, first serve and meant for acute illnesses or injuries rather than chronic disease management like routine diabetic visits or complex medical concerns. These chronic and complex medical concerns are better managed in a continuity-of-care setting like a family doctor’s office. 

Clinicians at walk-in clinics may have a more limited scope, focusing this clinic’s practice on acute illnesses and injuries instead of complex or chronic medical concerns like diabetes. Common non-urgent conditions treated at walk-in clinics include: 

  • Sprains and strains 
  • Rashes 
  • Cuts and bruises 
  • Burns 
  • Infections of the ear, nose, and throat
  • New cough 
  • Stomach upset 
  • Emergency contraception and advice 
  • Prescription refills
  • Referrals 

Walk-in clinic providers will not have access to your medical chart to review your past medical history, investigations, or family history that may help guide treatment plans. These providers may also change more frequently, meaning you may see a different provider each time you go to the same clinic making it difficult to develop any resemblance of a patient-clinician relationship. 

Can you go to a walk-in clinic if you have a family doctor? 

Walk-in clinics are open to everyone, whether or not you have a family doctor or have a health card. There will be an associated cost for anyone without a health card and for certain services like letters for employers. Your provincial health plan pays family doctors to provide care for their rostered patients. When a patient rostered under a family doctor goes to a walk-in clinic, that family doctor pays back the government. To avoid this penalty, some family doctors offer after-hour clinics. One thing to consider is, information about your walk-in visit is rarely transferred to your doctor’s office, making it more difficult for your family doctor to keep your medical records updated and accurate. 

What does having a family doctor mean?

Family doctors are specially trained to provide a continuum of care from birth throughout the course of your lifetime. A family physician can build a long-term patient-provider relationship to provide you with individualized care for your unique personal and family medical history. Working with you, they may provide: 

  • Holistic, patient-centered care for acute illnesses and injuries (like sore throats or UTIs) as well as chronic disease management (like chronic pain or diabetes visits) 
  • Injury and disease prevention such as cancer screening (like paps and fecal immunochemical test (FIT) stool testing), cardiovascular health screening (like blood pressure and peripheral vascular disease screening), and prenatal visits  
  • Health promotion through routine screening like well baby and child visits and immunizations
  • Coordination with public health services (like home care) 
  • Connection to other specialists (like general surgeons or dermatologists) through referrals

Family doctors’ offices usually have set daily hours and a limited number of appointments available each day. Most family doctor offices have moved to a system that reserves a certain number of appointments for “same day” visits, to see acute illnesses like new coughs, ear infections, or UTIs. Not all doctor’s offices have these same-day appointments, and sometimes the wait to get an appointment can feel too long, particularly when it’s an acute illness or injury.

The number of family physicians working collaboratively in multi-disciplinary teams is growing. This interprofessional collaboration allows the family doctor to expand their services, reaching more patients, and providing high-quality comprehensive care. It is not uncommon to see family doctors working in teams with nurses, nurse practitioners (NPs), physician assistants (PAs), clinical pharmacists, social workers, or dietitians for example. 

Some family doctors work in teams with other doctors like family health teams (FHT) or family health organizations (FHO). Within these teams or organizations, doctors are able to offer extended hours and provide after-hour clinics for each other’s patients. Similar to a walk-in clinic, the after-hour clinics are first come, first serve. Keep in mind you may not be seen by your own doctor in these after-hour clinics. You will be seen by whomever is covering the clinic on that day. These clinics add convenience by providing access to your full chart. A note will be added to your chart outlining the reason for your visit, assessment, and plan to help keep accurate medical records and open communication with your family doctor. 

Both family practices and walk-in clinics have benefits and limitations. Choosing family doctors vs. walk-in clinics requires consideration of not only your unique care needs but also your priorities and preferences at the time. There may be times when convenience trumps continuity of care, and vice versa. Maple can provide you with the convenience of walk-in clinics, and the continuity of care like having a family doctor. With Maple, virtual appointments are available anywhere and anytime. See a Canadian-licensed primary care provider online today

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