What Are the Types of Clinics in Public Health and What Do They Offer?

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Older women speaking with health care provider.Often, health care is considered on an individual level ― as a relationship between patient and provider. But there is another dimension of the U.S. health care system that’s important to understand: Public health.

The CDC Foundation defines public health as “the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities.” It further notes this work involves promoting healthy lifestyles; disease research and prevention; and rapid response to large-scale public health crises, a subject that is all too familiar in the COVID-19 era.

Public health is all about ensuring healthy communities, where individuals and families can thrive. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, in its Healthy People 2020 report, notes that an emphasis on community health can reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity. It can help kids and teenagers better cope with cycles of violence, abuse, or poverty by providing the necessary mental health resources.

What’s more, a focus on community health can help minimize the nation’s overall health care expenditure. According to the aforementioned Healthy People report, more than 90% of the nation’s health care costs go toward treating chronic conditions, which public health initiatives can help minimize.

America’s public health infrastructure includes more than 1,400 community health centers across the country, operating more than 10,000 care delivery sites, and providing much needed medical services to adults and children in underserved areas. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), public health clinics serve “1 in 10 American kids, 1 in 6 Americans living in rural areas, and 1 in 3 Americans living in poverty.”

Here we’ll take a closer look at the specific types of clinics within this broad nationwide infrastructure, including mental health clinics, free clinics, community health clinics, family health clinics, women’s health clinics, and rural health clinics. Each plays an important role in supporting healthy populations.

For those who seek a career in public health, and additional insight into how clinics fit into the larger picture of community health care, a sound strategy is to pursue an advanced degree in public health or a related field.

Mental Health Clinics at a Glance

Mental health conditions are common to all populations in America, yet all too often they go untreated. According to an NBC News report, roughly 56% of Americans who have a mental illness do not receive treatment. Often, the simple reason for this is they cannot afford it. Mental health clinics work to fill this gap.

The Work of Mental Health Clinics

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “A community or county mental health care center often provides public mental health care services when a referral to a private doctor or therapist is not possible.” These public clinics provide services for those whose mental health conditions significantly impact their day-to-day functionality and overall quality of life. The clinics are usually funded and operated by local governments, and their services are offered for free or for subsidized rates.

The following are some of the specific services offered at mental health clinics.

  • Outpatient care
  • Assistance with medication management
  • Case management
  • Managed care through an agreement with a local residential treatment program

At a mental health clinic, patients might receive care from a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, social worker, or even a peer support specialist. The overall goal is to promote mental health on a community level, which might include educational or awareness projects related to healthy stress management, ways to cope with depression, and more.

Mental Health Clinics and Behavioral Health

In some cases, the services provided by mental health clinics may also assist patients who struggle with behavioral health issues. For example, counselors and therapists may provide tools, resources, or medication management for patients who have ADHD, ADD, bipolar disorder, or learning disorders. As such, these public clinics can play an important role in addressing issues that affect academic learning and student conduct in local school systems; another way in which they champion community well-being.

A Look at Free Health Clinics

Free health clinics provide medical services to individuals who are either low-income or who lack health insurance. Free clinics have played an important part in the U.S. health system since 1967, and today there are more than a thousand of them across the country.

There are several key characteristics of free health clinics.

  • They are community-based. No two free clinics are exactly the same, as each is tailored to address specific health and wellness needs within the local area.
  • They are private and nonprofit, and are generally supported by cash and in-kind donations from the private sector.
  • They target adults who are uninsured, underinsured, or don’t have much in the way of income.
  • They place an emphasis on providing compassionate, judgment-free care to all patients.
  • They operate from the position that all people deserve access to medical care, regardless of their ability to pay. (Some clinics may charge very minor fees for certain services, to help offset the cost of diagnostic testing, for example.)

Free Health Clinic Services

Free health clinics provide for the needs of low-income or underinsured patients in a number of ways.

  • They provide primary care for day-to-day health concerns, with services administered by trained medical professionals.
  • Some clinics provide dental care and treatment for oral diseases, which tend to be common in rural and low-income areas.
  • They help patients with the management of chronic conditions, including asthma and diabetes.
  • Some free health clinics offer access to eye care and general lab work.
  • These clinics may also provide women’s health services, including maternal health services, access to contraception, and breast cancer screenings.

Volunteers at Free Health Clinics

Another core aspect of these clinics is the way they operate on a purely volunteer basis. Local doctors and nurses provide the medical work pro bono. Meanwhile, administrative work is usually performed by lay volunteers, which helps minimize operating costs.

Community Health Clinics: Services and Care

In some ways, community health clinics (sometimes called neighborhood clinics) promote the same goals as free clinics: they strive to make primary care available to underserved populations by removing potential barriers, including cost and lack of insurance. Additionally, community health clinics are attentive to the demographics of the community they serve, seeking to ensure that cultural or language barriers don’t prevent people from receiving the medical attention they need.

While free clinics and community health clinics share some commonalities, there is a clear distinction between the two. A free clinic is made possible through volunteerism and donations from the private sector. Community health clinics are usually run by the government and are funded at the county level.

What a Community Health Clinic Does

A community health clinic serves its local population in a number of ways.

  • It provides primary care, preventive care, basic dental care, and pharmaceutical care to low- or no-income individuals in the community.
  • It helps with the management of chronic conditions, which can include HIV/AIDS, asthma, diabetes, obesity, and depression.
  • It helps to minimize the need for emergency room visits or ambulance services, keeping local hospitals from becoming overburdened.
  • In providing preventive care and promoting healthy lifestyles, it can help realize significant savings for the health care system overall.
  • It provides a number of ancillary services to make sure individuals can receive the care they need; this may mean arranging transportation services, providing translation services, assisting with general health and wellness education, and more.
  • A community health clinic can also provide case management, ensuring that individuals receive the full spectrum of care their conditions require.

The Neighborhood Health Clinic vs. the Free Health Clinic

To ensure a proper understanding of the different types of clinics, it’s helpful to make a clear distinction between a neighborhood health clinic and a free clinic.

In many ways, the two types of clinics are similar.

  • They operate with the same basic mission: to ensure that primary care and chronic disease management are both accessible to community members in need.
  • Both neighborhood and free clinics serve an important role in minimizing the burden on local hospitals or emergency departments.
  • Both neighborhood clinics and free clinics tailor their services to the needs of the community.

The biggest difference is that neighborhood health clinics are operated by the government and staffed with public health professionals. Free clinics, meanwhile, are usually made possible through cash and in-kind donations from the private sector and staffed by volunteers. There are some other distinctions as well.

  • Community health clinics are subject to federal regulation, while free clinics can vary in their regulatory oversight and are usually administered at the county or state level.
  • The referral system is also different. A neighborhood health clinic will refer patients to an outside provider (such as an eye doctor) based on reimbursement models, while a free clinic refers patients to whichever local providers volunteer.
  • There are also differences in payment and funding. With a neighborhood health clinic, services are funded through third-party payers. With a free clinic, services are usually volunteered free of charge, though patients may be invited to make small donations as they are able.

Women’s Health Clinics

Women’s health clinics address biological and physiological needs that are unique to women. The specific services offered by a women’s health clinic can vary widely, as different women have different needs based on their age, background, and racial or ethnic identity.

Services Offered at a Women’s Health Clinic

There are a number of specific ways in which these clinics serve their patients.

  • Women’s health clinics generally provide primary care. Many women may simply feel more comfortable having their basic medical needs attended to at a facility that specializes in female health. Clinics may also provide nutritional services that are focused on women’s needs.
  • At a women’s health clinic, patients may receive both general education and diagnostic screenings for breast cancer, cervical cancer, and other health issues that impact women.
  • A women’s health clinic may also offer services in the field of reproductive health, including family planning and access to contraception. STD and HIV testing may also be available.
  • These clinics often provide a full spectrum of gynecological and obstetric care. Women may also receive prenatal and postpartum care. Lactation consultations are sometimes available for nursing mothers.
  • In a women’s health clinic setting, patients may also receive guidance on navigating premenopause, menopause, and related concerns.

Additional Psychosocial Support

Some women who visit clinics face tough situations, such as unwanted pregnancy (including pregnancy as the result of rape), domestic abuse, addiction, and beyond. Clinics exist to promote the holistic health and well-being of patients. Sometimes, that means connecting them to outside resources that can offer greater levels of psychosocial support. Depending on the situation, this might mean referring patients to a counselor, attorney, or even someone in law enforcement.

What Is a Rural Health Clinic?

Some clinics primarily serve patients in rural or sparsely populated areas. Such locales may not have urgent care facilities, and the options for private medical practices can be limited. Additionally, patients may be many miles from the nearest hospital or ambulatory service. Rural health clinics promote health and wellness and work to minimize the need for these less-accessible services.

Services Offered at a Rural Health Clinic

Patients who visit a rural health clinic access a number of important services.

  • Primary care, including basic checkups, diagnostics, first aid, and pharmaceutical intervention
  • Access to vaccinations, such as those for the flu, hepatitis, etc.
  • Family planning and contraception options
  • Case management and referrals to other health facilities or specialists as needed
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Assistance with the management of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, and obesity
  • Lab work and general medical tests (blood pressure screenings, etc.)
  • Care administered through telehealth services

It is also fairly common for a rural health clinic to promote wellness and general education, including within the local school system. Again, one of the end goals of rural health clinics is to minimize the need for the types of care that might be difficult to access or may be in limited supply.

What Defines a Rural Area?

These clinics are defined by their advocacy for patients in rural areas, but how are such areas delineated and defined?

There are more than 4,000 rural health clinics spread across 44 states. The location of a rural health clinic can be determined in a couple of ways.

  • These clinics typically exist in an area that is defined as non-urbanized by the United States Census Bureau (that is, having fewer than 50,000 inhabitants).
  • Clinics are also found in areas that are defined as medically underserved by relevant legislation, such as the Public Health Service Act.

A Look at the Family Health Clinic

Family health clinics offer medical services for both adults and children. Some may also offer specialized services that are geared toward women, such as prenatal care, reproductive health consultations, and beyond.

Family health clinics provide comprehensive medical services for families of all economic standings, including those in low-income or no-insurance situations, and also those who have commercial or government-subsidized health insurance.

Some of the services offered by a family health clinic include the following.

  • Basic primary care, as well as dental and vision care (sometimes on-site, sometimes via referral to a specialist)
  • Case management
  • Pharmaceutical intervention
  • Screenings for common health concerns and access to relevant vaccinations
  • Assistance with the management of chronic conditions
  • Nutrition counseling and healthy lifestyle promotion

By providing health care services for entire families, including patients of all ages, these clinics can offer invaluable public health resources.

Building Healthy Communities

American communities teem with diversity and are all wonderfully distinct from one another. As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for promoting public health. To build healthy communities, a wide range of care environments is required, including different types of clinics. Together, these clinics can provide solutions for patients of all kinds, particularly those who don’t have viable access to any other kind of medical care delivery.

The diversity of clinics in America provides many opportunities for individuals who wish to make an impact through effective health care leadership. A good starting point to pursue a future in public health is to seek advanced education such as an online master’s degree in public health from Ohio University.

The program features a curriculum that includes Epidemiology, Environmental Health, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and other core courses, offering students an academic foundation that can help them build healthy communities.

Learn more about how Ohio University can help you embark on a public health career today.

Recommended Readings

Health Educator Salary and Job Duties: Leading the Next Generation of Care

What Is Health Informatics, and How Does It Affect Public Health?

Benefits of Working for Nonprofit Health Care Organizations


California Department of Public Health, Women’s Health

CDC Foundation, What Is Public Health?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Public Health System

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Rural Health Clinics

Family Health Care, What’s a Community Health Center?

The Free Clinics, What is a Free Clinic?

HealthyPeople.gov, Healthy People 2020

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Treatment Settings

National Association of County and City Health Officials, Public Health Infrastructure and Systems

NBC News, Mental Health Services: How to Get Treatment if You Can’t Afford It

NPR, Under Financial Strain, Community Health Centers Ramp Up For Coronavirus Response

Rural Health Information Hub, Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) Introduction

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Behavioral Health Treatments and Services