HLTH21: Where Walmart is focusing its health efforts in the next 5 to 10 years

As startups, tech giants and retail continue their descent on traditional healthcare, Walmart has a clear plan in place to distinguish itself from the pack.

The world’s largest retailer has more than 5,000 locations in the U.S. and offers consumers services ranging from online shopping to home grocery delivery.

At the same time, it’s made a handful of moves in the past several months alone to add virtual care, drug discount programs, a single unified electronic health record system for its clinics and (as of last week) a new partnership that will bring its low-cost pharmaceuticals to self-insured employees.

Each of these efforts are pushing toward what Walmart’s health leaders say are its goalposts for the next several years: omnichannel care offerings that are low cost, equitable, trusted and meet consumers on their terms.

“I hear about how often Americans just don’t engage in their health, and I often think that that’s not the challenge of the individual,” Marcus Osborne, senior vice president at Walmart Health, said during a HLTH 2021 session. “If people aren’t engaging, you haven’t created the solution that allows them to engage. They do want to engage.”

In a keynote session, Cheryl Pegus, M.D., executive vice president of health and wellness, told Fierce Healthcare Senior Editor Paige Minemyer that the retailer has been seeing a greater appetite for consumer-friendly health offerings from its customers and business partners.

She said Walmart’s large volume of diverse assets gives it a front-row spot in supporting Americans’ clinical care, personal health behaviors and “the largest unmet health need in our country”: access to fresh foods.

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“Healthcare is more than just going to see a doctor,” Pegus said. “I think we all know that, but I think we forget that in healthcare we should provide all of those other assets and services as well, which is part of what we’re sharing with people here today.”

Most of those services are either already among Walmart’s offerings or within immediate reach, Pegus said. Importantly, both executives stressed that they can all be offered in tandem and from a variety of physical and digital touch points.

In one hypothetical scenario, a parent could order groceries for in-store pickup through a Walmart app and receive a reminder that they need to pick up a refill of their prescription, Pegus said. Upon arrival, they could ask a health professional specific questions about the dosing, receive an annual vaccination and schedule a dental cleaning for their child.

“That’s not something we have to go build—we now have all of those assets and capabilities and are doing it,” she said.

Osborne similarly pointed to the company’s reach into home delivery services, efforts which he admitted are still in their early stages compared to other retail and tech players. Home grocery delivery of food and other products are available through the recently launched Walmart+ membership service, which he said will likely expand to include over-the-counter health products in the short term and other pharmacy or care capabilities further down the road.

“When you start to go into people’s homes and you’re putting food in their refrigerators … adding one or two other services that could be a benefit to a prescription—did you take your meds today, maybe someone needs their blood pressure reading—those things become sort of obvious components.

“It is important not to just see it as going into the home for the home’s sake, but part of what is this omnichannel opportunity that sits in front of all of us, letting people know ‘we know you need care, we know you need support. We want to reach you the way you want to be reached.’ That’s an important part of what we’re doing,” he said.

Consumers’ adoption of that vision relies on Walmart achieving a few key goals in the coming years, Pegus said.

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One of these is wrapping the care delivery process into a single integrated experience, “hence why we’re putting everything on one [electronic health record] platform,” she noted.

The next is to extend Walmart’s reputation for low-cost products into its healthcare services for the sake of its consumers—or more specifically, ensure that value-based care becomes “the norm of how we provide services and care across the country,” she said. Alongside leveraging its scale and supply chain, this means finding the right providers and partners.

“We employ and utilize community health workers, … care coordinators, nurses and medical assistants,” Pegus said. “If 70% of your healthcare outcome is from personal behaviors and social determinants of health, in those two areas we have lots of healthcare professionals and companies that can provide them.”

But most importantly Pegus said that Walmart will need to prove to consumers that the company and the health services it provides can be trusted. Here, Walmart’s most valuable asset will be its ubiquity across the country as an employer.

Pegus pointed out that the majority of the retailer’s 1.5 million U.S. associates live in the communities immediately surrounding their stores. These individuals very often understand the cultural and healthcare needs of the people around them, she said, and will be vital as Walmart works to establish itself as a reliable health resource.

“We’ve given out millions and millions of vaccines. 80% of all of the immunizations we’ve done at Walmart have been in medically underserved areas,” she said. “That requires partnerships. That requires associates who understand communities and that understand us being very rigorous in identifying these communities."

“We utilize an internal algorithm to identify the highest risk communities in the country,” Pegus continued. “What we’ve learned in doing these is that our associates actually already know the leaders in those communities. So if you ask them, they’ll point you to who exactly you’ll need to speak to so that people know partnering with Walmart is something leaders in the community agree with.”