Retail clinics offer a quality of care equivalent to that of urgent care centers and private doctors' offices, according to a 2009 study from Rand. Its typical patients are young adults who have no regular health care provider.

Limitations: Patients looking for a doctor or on-site X-ray or lab facilities won't find them at retail clinics, and many of the clinics won't treat babies and toddlers younger than 18 months.

Urgent care centers

For care that's more comprehensive than that at retail clinics but not as complete as that offered in hospital emergency departments, urgent care centers are an option.

They also don't take appointments, but the centers do provide doctors and treatment for midlevel problems, such as simple fractures, sprains, bruises, burns and cuts requiring stitches. Many also treat asthma and bladder infections.

"Our goal is to get people in, treated and out within an hour," said Jim Greenwood, the CEO of Concentra, a Dallas health care provider that owns and operates more than 300 urgent care clinics in 40 states.

"We're not battling the primary care doctors," Greenwood said. "We're supplementing what they do."

Transparent pricing also has caught on at Concentra, which shows in English and Spanish the cost of three levels of service, which typically range from $95 to $190, he said.

Concentra's urgent care centers are generally located closer to where people work than where they live, and many have extended hours to accommodate patients' work schedules. Back pain is one of the top reasons patients seek care there, and each center is staffed with a doctor and a physical therapist, Greenwood said.

"The beauty of our model is the physician and the physical therapists are communicating," he said. "They know if the patient is getting better or not with physical therapy."

Limitations: Like retail clinics, urgent care centers typically don't treat infants. Costs are 30% to 40% higher than at retail clinics, reflecting more staff training and resources, Mehrotra said.

Community health centers

Community health centers are nonprofits that typically serve uninsured people and those with low incomes. They charge patients on a sliding fee scale, based on federal guidelines and a person's ability to pay.

"It's a good place to come and feel welcome without being embarrassed if you don't have the insurance or you don't have the money," said Lolita Lopez, the president of Westside Family Healthcare in Wilmington, Del.

Many health centers help patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes manage their ailments so they don't end up in costly emergency rooms.

Community health centers don't consider themselves one-shot deals. They offer an array of primary and preventive care services, sometimes including dental clinics, optometry, pediatric and obstetric/gynecology facilities under one roof. They often function as a medical home, a place patients can return to over time as theirs medical needs change.

"Their focus is on continuity of care, while retail clinics, urgent care and ERs are treating one problem and don't necessarily have to see you again," Mehrotra said.

Limitations: Most community health centers require appointments and documentation of income. Wait times can be long, because resources are often stretched thin -- even more so in this period of high joblessness. Nationally, health centers saw a 21% jump in uninsured patients between June 2008 and June 2009.

Hospital emergency rooms

Emergency rooms are always open and stocked with lifesaving equipment and personnel. Doctors say patients with potentially serious symptoms, such as a high fever, shortness of breath or chest pain, should seek ER care without delay. About half of emergency room patients are admitted to hospitals.

Limitations: Of all the above options, the ER is by far the most expensive place to receive medical care, and patients with less urgent needs can face long waits before being treated.

This article was reported by Kristen Gerencher for MarketWatch.