Wal-Mart wants to be your doctor
The retailer is making its long-awaited move into delivering primary care, opening clinics that offer visits for just $40 -- and $4 for employees.
Goodbye, doctor's office. Hello, Wal-Mart?
Based on Wal-Mart's (WMT) latest moves, it's not as unlikely as it sounds.
After years of "Will they or won’t they?" discussion, Wal-Mart is making its long-awaited move into delivering primary care: The retailer has quietly opened half a dozen primary care clinics across South Carolina and Texas and plans to launch six more before January.
The clinics will be staffed by nurse practitioners in a partnership with QuadMed.
Wal-Mart watchers know the company already has more than 100 "retail clinics" across its stores, a strategy it's pursued for years. So why fuss over a handful of new clinics?
- Because unlike those retail clinics -- which Wal-Mart hosts through leases with local hospitals, resulting inmixed success -- these new clinics are fully owned by the company and branded explicitly as one-stop shops for primary care.
- Because the clinics will be open longer and later than competitors: 12 hours per day during the week and another 8-plus hours per day on weekends.
- And because of the company's size and scale: Wal-Mart's potential as a disruptive innovator in healthcare is essentially peerless.
The company's move comes at an ideal time to capture consumers: Millions of Americans are getting insurance coverage through Obamacare, and seeking new, convenient sources of care. Wal-Mart's stressed that its clinics will be a low-cost alternative to traditional options: Walk-in visits will cost just $40.
And for the hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees covered by the company health plan, well, it's even cheaper.
"For our associates and dependents on the health plan, you can come and see a provider in the Wal-Mart Care Clinic for $4. Four dollars!" Jennifer LaPerre, a company official, said last week. "That is setting a new retail price in the health care industry," she added.
What the move means
I wrote about Wal-Mart's big move for the Advisory Board Daily Briefing back on Monday, and my colleagues and I have spent the past week kicking around the implications.
I thought it might be interesting to share a glimpse into our conversations.
Wal-Mart's careful deliberations
Wal-Mart's push into primary care clinics isn't a shock. The company has spent several years dropping hints that it would make a play for the care delivery market.
But now that we can see the company's actual moves -- opening just a handful of clinics in relatively small markets in Texas and South Carolina -- should we be surprised?
I asked Alicia Daugherty, my colleague who oversees the Advisory Board's marketing and planning research, and she doesn't think so. The company's proceeding cautiously, keeping with its tradition.
"Wal-Mart's corporate strategy has never been about first-mover advantage -- it's about distribution efficiency and cost management," she says.
"Coming in a little later in the game allows them to capitalize on markets created by others, and learn from others' mistakes."
And Wal-Mart's picking markets that have advantages, Daugherty adds.
"Both Texas and South Carolina have primary care access problems, [but] interestingly, the access problem is specifically related to cost," she says. "And neither state is expanding Medicaid, so both will continue to have a group of uninsured who will prioritize cost when seeking care. Obviously, both also have high rates of obesity, smoking, chronic conditions, and poverty."
Wal-Mart as market mover
Lisa Bielamowicz, the Advisory Board's chief medical officer, notes that Wal-Mart's move keeps with the broader trend of retailers, big-box stores, and other non-traditional competitors charging into health care delivery. And Wal-Mart's entry into the market could push hospitals and doctors to up their game.
"The competitive factors by which you win primary care business are starting to change," Bielamowicz said in an interview with Healthcare Finance News.
"Health systems and physician groups have to understand that. If there's a Wal-Mart clinic open 15 hours a day, that's the standard you may have to meet."
Wal-Mart as signal of a broader trend
And for all the focus on Wal-Mart's big moves -- The New York Times profiled the company's health care clinics in a story recently -- what's the media missing?
I asked Rob Lazerow, who helps lead Advisory Board research into health care transformation, what he thinks is being overlooked.
"Wal-Mart's new clinics show the continued growth of retail clinics -- but only highlight one aspect of the emerging trend of retail health care," he told me.
"For hospital and health system executives, especially those in markets without a Wal-Mart clinic, the new retail insurance market is much more transformative," Lazerow adds. "Through public and private health insurance exchanges, millions of patients are gaining unprecedented control over their health plan decisions, actively selecting among many plans offered by a range of health insurers."
"This is a very different competitive landscape than what most executives have faced previously -- and hospitals risk losing volumes at each decision point."
More from Forbes
- Jobs Are Growing. Health Care is Booming. So Why Are Hospitals Flat?
- ‘Obamacare’ Is More Than Exchanges
- The Three Words To Use To Win Your Meeting
Walmart Executive Brainstorming Session
Step #1 Open clinics.
Step #2 Make them all self-service.
Confused Patient: Where is the Doctor?
Incompetent Walmart Employee: Just type your symptoms into the tablet and pick up your prescription from the pharmacy.
And you can rest assured they will take Medicaid, so that all the employees that are underpaid, get food stamps and Medicaid and buy food at WalMart with the food stamps, will get treatment there, all while WalMart gets big tax breaks for "providing jobs."
WalMart is the world's largest con-artist.
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