Maybe you’ve picked up a prescription medication or been fitted for a pair of eyeglasses at Wal-Mart. But would you trust Wal-Mart with your larger medical care?
The retailer is trying to figure that out, opening up clinics in a handful of stores in South Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
At a recently opened clinic in North Augusta, South Carolina, a steady stream of patients came through on a recent morning. The clinic is located near the front of the store, with opaque windows for privacy. It’s small, with just three exam rooms.
For $40 you can get a medical checkup with a nurse practitioner. For Wal-Mart employees on the company health plan, it’s only $4.
Roger Beahm, the executive director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Retail Innovation, says the move is a natural step for Wal-Mart. He says growing companies are always looking for the next big thing.
“So how do you that? How do you get more customers into the store? How do you increase the size of the shopping basket when they are in store?” Beahm says. “The answer to that lies in getting more products, more services that customers are willing to buy when they come into the store.”
Wal-Mart has done that before by offering in-store banking and food service. Some locations already host walk-in clinics in space leased to local healthcare providers. But now, Wal-Mart is opening its own on-site primary care clinics.
By owning the clinics, Wal-Mart can control costs and the services offered, says the company’s senior health and wellness director, Jennifer LaPerre. She says the company has a track record of pushing other retailers to provide health services at a lower cost. She cites the $4 generic prescription drug program the company rolled out in 2006.
“That became branded in the community. It caused numerous other pharmacies to follow suit,” LaPerre says.
The company is piloting the concept in areas with high rates of chronic disease and a shortage of healthcare providers. So far, that means smaller cities in the South, in states that aren’t expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
It’s an obvious place to start, says Dr. Harris Berman, the dean of Tufts University School of Medicine. Berman says he would have been skeptical of the idea a decade ago. But he says technology is making it easier for nurse practitioners to stay in touch with doctors who will supervise them remotely and help ensure better care. He says rural areas have an especially critical need for primary care providers.
“I don’t think patients in Boston would go for this concept, or in metropolitan areas,” he says. “But Wal-Mart is very much into rural areas. And I think there, there really is an acute shortage and this would be seen as better than no care.”