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Walmart is going into the healthcare business.

This is notable for a number of reasons:

  • 8¢ of every dollar spent in retail in the US is spent at Walmart
  • It’s the largest employer in the US
  • It’s the largest retailer in the US

Those stats add up to a behemoth. If Walmart enters an industry vertical as a competitor, it says they’ve run the numbers, and it makes revenue sense.

While listening to Morning Edition on NPR this morning, I hung on every word of the piece that revealed that Walmart was planning on putting clinics in their stores. Even Walmart has been hit by the downturn in the economy, so they likely see healthcare as an additional draw – get someone in the store for a doctor’s appointment, and sell them some groceries and housewares while they’re there.

Here’s why this could be a great idea:

  1. Access. You don’t have to make an appointment, you can just walk in. And you’re getting care in a place that you’re likely visiting anyway, given Walmart’s ubiquity.
  2. Cost. We all see what Walmartization has done to retail pricing in most of the retail sector. Walmart entering the healthcare vertical will put downward pressure on primary care pricing.
Here’s why this could be a really terrible idea:
  1. Quality. Walmart is known for cheap and plentiful. Those are not the key words for good outcomes in healthcare.
  2. Doctor-patient relationship(s). This effort could turn in to a trip in the way-back machine to the bad old days of the early HMOs, when “doctor, doctor, who’s my doctor?” felt like a bad game of musical chairs.

I’m going to watch closely to see how this story plays out. It’s already getting interesting – Walmart’s Senior VP & President of US Health & Wellness John Agwunobi M.D. issued a statement at 2:52pm Eastern today (11-9-11) saying that “The RFI statement of intent is overwritten and incorrect. We are not building a national, integrated, low-cost primary care health care platform.”

Well, John, then what the H-E-double-hockey-stix ARE you building? And who will come?

Will you? I really would like to know.

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Retail healthcare. At Walmart. The pluses and minuses.
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