Do Walmart's early moves foretell a leap into mHealth?

Giants from other industries--IT, telecom, etc.--have lumbered into mobile healthcare and threatened to change how the mHealth industry will evolve. But a true category-killer is on the scene, and one that the entire mHealth market must notice.

Global retailer Walmart announced late last week it has two initiatives that, should they connect, could lead to true market-blowing change:

  • A move to possibly create a national primary care service: Right now, this first initiative is expected to expand in-person services from the retailer's 140 existing in-store clinics to an untold number of its 3,500 stores nationwide. The details are sketchy yet, but Kaiser Health News says the expanded program ultimately could offer everything from basic preventive services to lab tests to chronic disease management.

    Note: Wal-Mart has since backpedaled on a few points of its initial statement, which came out in request for information to potential healthcare partners in late October, and was leaked to the public by National Public Radio late last week. However, the goal of moving firmly into the healthcare space is not one of them.
  • A new focus on app development for customers: This includes bar-code scanning, QR codes and voice-activated shopping lists. The mobile apps right now are retail-focused, giving customers a way to scan for prices and browse inventory.

    But it only will take a few minor steps in either direction for these projects to dovetail into Walmart providing a host of mobile-enabled healthcare services. Consider that the company's RFI specifically asked for "associated solutions, applications, and/or related offerings"--wording that makes me think of software and mHealth apps far more than brick-and-mortar services or tangible products. And given Walmart's other goal for the program--cutting costs--it seems mobile health is a shoo-in to be invited to the party.

So how might the retail giant wedge itself into the mHealth space? A few early ideas include:

  • Remote patient monitoring: Walmart could provide call centers and alert services to patients whose vital signs go out of parameters.
  • Telehealth: The store also could enable online physician visits, like those being offered by Rite Aid and Walgreens, but on a much larger scale.
  • Creating apps: The retail giant could help users diagnose conditions, or chronic disease sufferers manage their symptoms, with custom mobile applications.

Walmart's ultimate goal for its healthcare initiative is a bit cloudy; that's probably on purpose. It's certainly one that hospital CIOs should be tracking. Walmart providing mobile health functionality could change how patients obtain healthcare, how physicians deliver it, and how insurer's pay for it.

I'm certainly keeping my eyes peeled for the company's next move. - Sara