By Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer
There was a flurry of conflicting news reports recently that said Walmart was gearing-up to dominate the healthcare provider sector…or maybe not. As we see it, the real question is not “if,” but “when.” And there are several private sector horses in this race.
First came the stories from NPR and Kaiser Health News that Walmart—already the nation’s largest retailer—wanted to become the largest provider of primary healthcare services in the nation. But not long after that, Walmart’s senior VP and president of Walmart US Health & Wellness, Dr. John Agwunobi, said it’s not-so. “We are not building a national, integrated, low-cost primary care health care platform.”
Marketing-minded physicians, and medical practice marketing professionals, were left to speculate about Walmart, or any of several other large retail players, jumping into the nation’s primary care shortage. For starters, Walmart already has about 140 in-store clinics, and until recently was the leader in opening new locations. Retailer CVS Caremark operates over 500 Minute Clinics, and Walgreens has over 350 Take Care clinics.
Although corporate planners (at Walmart and others) want to keep their strategic planning initiatives to themselves, this trend by retailers into healthcare delivery began a decade ago. And it seems likely to continue to grow as a competitive factor in physician and medical practice marketing, although the final business model is still uncertain.
From a retail perspective, it makes sense to further capitalize on the nation’s growing demand for convenient and low-cost primary care. Large retailers already have foot traffic, and adding clinics expands the attraction for shoppers. (Walmart has nearly 4,000 US locations, and boasts more than 200 million weekly customers worldwide.)
With basic clinic services already in place, retailers may expand on medical services as well as increasing the number of locations. Further, some analysts anticipate that the concept of Accountable Care Organizations (ACO) is not limited to doctors and hospitals working together. ACOs could include participation from the retail sector in the search for improved healthcare delivery systems and reduced costs.
As we see it, both the healthcare sector and the retail sector are working through this process of change. And one of the biggest change elements is the nation’s gloomy economic climate, and the resulting “new normal” constraints on retail and healthcare spending by consumers.
This evolutionary process will take some time, but it’s important for healthcare marketing executives, physicians and hospitals to watch the competitive landscape. As retailers move further into healthcare delivery, will it improve the quality of care? Will it reduce costs? How will medical specialists be impacted? Will it reshape how hospitals and medical practices compete for patients, or will providers link arms with corporations and move to more retail locations also?
What’s your take on these dynamics? Let us know about your experience and how you see the shape of things to come in your area.