Health Care

Walmart dives into the primary-care market

October 21, 2019

Kaitlyn Finley

Imagine dropping off your car at Walmart for an oil change and also getting your semi-annual teeth cleaning from your dentist—all in one location. Some Georgia residents can now do just that.

Last month, Walmart opened its first standalone medical clinic in Dallas, Georgia (population 13,237). At the new 10,000-square-foot facility, Dallas residents will have access to a variety of primary-care services, including labs, X-ray, dental, hearing, nutritional services, and mental health counseling.

Walmart says it is dedicated to putting the customer first and will provide low, transparent pricing for their services at the clinic. “This state-of-the-art facility will provide quality, affordable, and accessible healthcare for members of the Dallas, Georgia, community so they can get the right care at the right time, right in their hometown,” says Sean Slovenski, president of Walmart U.S. Health and Wellness.

It’s time for the focus of health-policy conversations to shift from merely increasing “coverage” to organically lowering health care prices for all.

Dallas residents can go online and get a price estimate for their medical services. For instance, patients without insurance can receive a dental exam, including x-rays and basic teeth cleaning, for $50, according to the clinic’s website.

Business Insider reported that Walmart expects to open another standalone clinic in Calhoun, Georgia, sometime early next year. According to CNBC, if the clinics in Georgia are shown to be a success, Walmart may put a clinic in all of its 5,000-plus retail locations nationwide. Since more than 90 percent of U.S. consumers live within 10 miles of a Walmart location, offering health services could aid individuals in rural areas seeking closer primary-care services. As a retail giant, Walmart is uniquely situated to provide care in areas with lower patient volume and potentially lower profit margins.

The retail chain’s dive into the primary care market signals a strong generational shift in consumer behavior among young adults regarding their primary care services. According to a consumer survey from a national research group, Advisory Board, a significant percentage of millennials value on-demand care and low-cost services over credentials and maintaining a personal relationship with their family doctor. However, recent academic studies still show having a regular doctor may provide more efficient and effective care long-term for patients.

Surveys have found a growing number of millennials don’t have a primary care physician and instead seek out urgent care clinics for acute illnesses such as the flu or strep throat for convenience. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that according to a 2017 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a national think tank, “33 percent of millennials did not have a regular doctor, compared with 15 percent of those age 50 to 64.”                                                   

This is understandable given the growing difficulty of securing appointments with primary care physicians in recent years. A 2017 survey from Merritt Hawkins, a physician search firm, found that the average new-patient physician appointment wait time is now 24 days for large metro markets and more than 30 days for mid-size metro markets.

Traditional primary-care physicians spend much of their time on insurance paperwork in the office, leading to longer wait times. A study from the Annals of Internal Medicine found, “For every hour physicians provide direct clinical face time to patients, nearly 2 additional hours is spent on HER [electronic health records] and desk work within the clinic day.”

In order to minimize administrative work and increase face time with patients, a growing number of general physicians are transitioning their practices to a direct primary care (DPC) model. DPC physicians usually don’t accept major medical insurance or charge co-pays. Instead, doctors charge patients a flat monthly or quarterly fee for round-the-clock access to routine primary care services, something millennials value.

Since most DPC physicians don’t accept insurance, they spend less time dealing with mountains of third-party-payer paperwork. In return, they can spend more time attending to each patient. For instance, in Colorado (home to 90 DPC clinics), the average DPC clinic served 600-800 patients for an average visit time of 30-60 minutes. In comparison, traditional primary care practices in Colorado saw an average of 2,300 patients and spent 12-15 minutes with each patient.

With Walmart’s entrance into primary care and the growing popularity of DPC practices, it’s clear that consumer behavior in response to higher health care prices and premiums is shifting the health care landscape. Any increase in access to health care services, whether that’s from DPC clinics or other retail providers, should be welcomed by consumers and Oklahoma lawmakers alike.

It’s time for the focus of health-policy conversations (from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle) to shift from merely increasing “coverage” to organically lowering health care prices for all.  Policymakers must stress that America’s health care system will only improve once consumers—not third-party insurance companies—are responsible for most of their routine health care costs.