Industry Voices—The 'care-ification' of retail is here

Healthcare providers have promised that timely, convenient and affordable care built with the patient in mind is just around the corner. Yet we're still dealing with many of the same challenges that have plagued our system for years: long wait times, outrageous bills and a maze of red tape.

Of course, there have been glimmers of hope. The Affordable Care Act brought many common sense, consumer-friendly practices into play. And the pandemic skyrocketed the experimentation and ultimate embrace of virtual and hybrid care. But despite these historic events, the average healthcare experience stubbornly remains frustrating, expensive and cumbersome.

Now, finally, it seems a once-in-a-generation transformation is underway—and it's being led by outsiders whose very DNA is to put the customer first. Companies like Amazon, Walgreens, Best Buy and Walmart are taking big steps toward expanding their healthcare footprint and turning their loyal customers into engaged patients. Meanwhile, those who initially promised this care revolution are now on the outside, looking in.

Retail’s unique advantages

Retailers are placing big bets on their customers’ willingness to trust them with their healthcare needs. And I would take that same bet. Consumer trust in our healthcare system is at an all-time low, largely due to stubborn barriers like the lack of price transparency and equal access to care.

This has created a massive opportunity for these outsiders to step in and leverage their ultimate advantage—brand recognition and loyalty with customers. They understand the investment it takes in building experiences around their customer, prioritizing value and convenience along the way. Their physical presence can also be found in every town—sometimes seemingly on every corner—creating local relationships with their customers despite their national position.

Throughout the pandemic, we saw pharmacy retail chains step in to vaccinate much of the country. Now, we’re inching closer to a future where people stop by their local superstore to not only get their flu shot but their annual physical, as well. Or pull up their favorite retailer’s app, connect with a clinician virtually and get over-the-counter treatment—along with a few groceries—delivered directly to their home. As someone who has had my own ups and downs with the healthcare system, I’ve used the CVS MinuteClinics a few times and can easily see myself gravitating toward getting my primary care needs taken care of by a retail brand I know and trust.

This has been the grand vision for megaretailers for some time. While they’ve expanded their healthcare footprint slowly but surely over the past few decades, the underlying technology needed to deliver a great hybrid care experience hasn’t been mature enough to meet their understandably high expectations. But virtual care’s widespread adoption over the last few years has changed everything. Now that the idea of timely, convenient and affordable care is table stakes for consumers—and we have the technology to support this care transformation—retailers can much more easily enable their customers to get care wherever and whenever it works for them.

Retail is well positioned to take advantage of this moment. People understand that their favorite retailer will always be conveniently available, wherever they are. What if their care were, too?

Why the 'care-ification' of retail is a win-win for traditional providers, too

So what does this generational change in care delivery mean for traditional healthcare providers? Should they be concerned that consumer brands will divert their patients and, in doing so, fragment their care experience? There will certainly be short-term pains as this care delivery transformation gets underway. But we also shouldn’t lose sight of the potential long-term gains, including partnership opportunities and revenue generation.

For example, primary care continues to be a stubborn nut to crack. On top of being recognized as a loss leader for health systems, 1 in 3 people don’t have a primary care provider, and it’s estimated that 2 in 3 emergency room visits are avoidable and could have been addressed directly with primary care. By allowing retail to take on a larger share of the front door to care, traditional providers can instead focus more of their efforts on the patients who need their attention most and ultimately move out of the red.

There are also certain segments within the traditional system that are better positioned to meet consumer demands for a more convenient healthcare experience. Health plans recognized virtual care’s staying power early on in the pandemic, and some even began offering their members virtual-first plans centered around value and convenience. Soon, pulling up your health plan’s app may feel as convenient as stopping by your nearest megaretailer. Increased competition and challenges to the status quo will add fuel to the fire of this care delivery transformation. And, most importantly, we all stand to win if our primary care journeys make it as easy as possible for us to proactively engage with our health.

Delivering on the promise of consumer-centric care

As the care-ification of retail plays out, retail organizations will need to prove they’re trustworthy and capable. Will they be able to effectively balance cost, convenience and quality of care? And will they be able to deliver better outcomes—at scale?

Of course, there is the chance that this once-in-a-generation transformation sputters and stalls before finding momentum. But I’m bullish that even in the next five to 10 years, we’ll receive more of our care outside of the traditional system. And getting it right could mean finally meeting the promise of timely, convenient and affordable care.

Michelle Davey is the CEO and co-founder of Wheel.