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.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 8, 2014 2:14PM
Credit: © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Caption: Grocery items sit inside a cart at a Wal-Mart store in Alexandria, Va.By Dan Diamond, Forbes

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

Tags: WMT
Aug 8, 2014 3:41PM
tie it right into the pharmacy is how they can do this cheaply. ok mr patient, im writing you a prescription for that cough. it will be ready in 20-30 minutes in our pharmacy at a discount. please feel free to shop while waiting and here is your beeper to let you know when its ready. I suggest lots of fluids( popsicles 7up etc). saltine crackers are on sale today too. vegetable soup is on sale in the deli today.
Aug 8, 2014 3:46PM
Well, since the middle class seems to be disappearing and chances of getting into the top 10% are slim, we might as well get used to the thought of receiving our health care from Walmart. Shudders. 
Aug 8, 2014 5:44PM
If there are nurse practitioners, you can get basics that if left untreated become ridiculous problems, this is a good thing.    If this prevents someone from going into an ER instead of a clinic, then this is a start.  So many people want a place to go see a Dr. after 8 PM w/o going to an ER.  Any ear infection or small thing can turn into something bad.  At least they'd get it checked out and make a decision. 
Aug 8, 2014 2:31PM
Now all you people bitching about your high deductibles can get a discount. Walmart to the rescue...
Aug 8, 2014 4:09PM
Calling Dr. Moe... Dr. Larry ..... Dr Curley........................... Calling Dr. Moe... Dr. Larry.... Dr. Curley
Aug 8, 2014 3:34PM
Wal Mart is not smart enough to keep the shelves stocked. Why would anyone trust them for health care?
Aug 8, 2014 5:21PM
$40 is cheaper than a lot of insurance copays. You have to be careful with this, though. At one time Sears experimented in surgery. My friend went there to get a vasectomy. Now every time the garage door goes up, he gets a erection!
Aug 8, 2014 5:52PM
The best part is it beats waiting at an Emergency room for 5 hours sitting with all the "Illegal Aliens that President Obama invited here with his lack of leadership
Aug 8, 2014 2:24PM
A friend of mine used Walmarts optometry department and got the worst pair of glasses she has ever owned. They had a film on them that made them unusable in 3 months time. She got another pair from them and had the same results. If Walmart can't get optometry right, I have little faith in them doing anything medical.
Aug 8, 2014 3:43PM
Would you want your healthcare provided by a doctor who had to resort to setting up practice in a WalMart? Not me! You're talking last in the class MDs here.
Aug 8, 2014 5:46PM
This already sounds better than Obamacare. "If you do not like it you will not be forced to take it"
Aug 8, 2014 5:29PM

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.

Aug 8, 2014 3:53PM
As a medical Clinic owner I'm not worried. Walmart will screw this up just like they have done their stores. You still have to have customer service and they don't have it!!!!
Aug 8, 2014 4:01PM
Oh boy! Who wants to be first in line to turn their health problems over to a business based on the Quickie Lube 5 minute oil change model? Huh? Anybody?
Aug 8, 2014 8:08PM
If you like your WAL MART Doctor ,you can keep your WAL MART DOCTOR        PERIOD
Aug 8, 2014 7:27PM
Hey Doc when your done with that patient will you go stock the milk shelf. When your done with that that Chev truck needs the oil changed.
Aug 8, 2014 5:38PM
Obamacare won't survive! It was never about healthcare. 
Aug 8, 2014 6:21PM
Sadly enough, like retailers that pay huge amounts to pharmacists, luring them away from more important jobs in hospitals and clinics, WalMart will probably pay doctors very well, luring them away from better practice opportunities.

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.

Aug 8, 2014 3:04PM
I guess that means Wal-Mart will start a race to the bottom in quality of health care now.  On a related note get ready for Wal-Mart to infiltrate markets to expand the power they have over the American populous.  Amerika the site where Idiocracy will occur.
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