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Walmart’s Move into Primary Care

By Michael L. Taylor/Friday, September 5, 2014

Mike Taylor imageLast year, Walmart announced a plan to provide full primary care services to consumers nationwide within five to seven years. With its latest announcement, as reported by The New York Times, it now intends to start fulfilling its promise. Starting with six clinics in South Carolina and Texas, Walmart announced its intention to open six more clinics by the end of 2014. Walmart stores are often in rural areas that are medically under served, and they may be leveraging their locations to provide medical services in these under served areas. A big winner in this new development may be QuadMed, the service provider who won the contract to partner with Walmart in this effort.

How Walmart intends to use these primary care clinics isn’t completely clear. The traditional QuadMed model has been to provide comprehensive primary care services and to be the patient’s sole primary care provider. Their clinics typically use primary care doctors, with nurse practitioners supplementing the care. Specialty care is typically referred to the specialists in the community, but QuadMed doctors provide all the primary care, even in the care of complex cases.

But in the Walmart deal, there’s a subtle difference. Nurse practitioners will be providing the care with oversight of physicians, but the physicians won’t actually see patients – just providing oversight. This is a different model that may have implications for Walmart. As reported in The New York Times, the QuadMed Medical Director, Dr. David Severance said, “In that circumstance (complex care patients), it’s our desire to get those individuals established with a primary care provider, preferably a physician within the community.”

This is a different approach for QuadMed. The Walmart clinics won’t be a primary care center, but will employ a nurse practitioner model that uses physician in the community for primary care, in some cases. This model has similarities to the Walgreens and CVS approach of “retail clinics” that provide a limited scope of services and don’t deliver primary care. QuadMed has provided more comprehensive services, that of a patient-centered medical home led by a strong primary care physician. Their clinics have an excellent track record of providing cost-efficient, high-quality care in a timely manner. This new model of care will need to be delivered with a mid-level approach and a partnership with a physician in the community. That may be tricky.

The Walmart approach to delivering outpatient care could fill an important void, especially in under served areas. I was surprised to learn the Walmart clinics will only be open 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. I imagine the hours will expand over time to offer more evening hours to better compete with urgent care centers—especially in Texas, which doesn’t restrict free-standing emergency and urgent care centers. To be successful over time, the clinics will also need to accept their patient’s private insurance; this will be another change in the QuadMed model.

Medical care can be fragmented, with multiple physicians treating the same patients, but not communicating well. This fragmentation can lead to medical errors, inefficiencies and increased cost. The physicians overseeing the Walmart clinics should have a clear method of communicating with other physicians caring for these patients, ensuring all involved are aware of any diagnoses and treatments resulting from the clinic visit. There should also be a method to avoid duplicate lab tests and x-rays – a common problem in today’s medical care community. Well-run centers generally do a better job of using generic prescriptions, managing referrals to specialists, and avoiding unnecessary tests, especially CT and MRI exams. Since the actual care will be delivered by nurse practitioners, not by physicians, close oversight will be important to avoid these pitfalls.

This is a big step for Walmart, and I’m hopeful these clinics perform well. Will Walmart one day be the largest provider of primary care in the U.S.? Don’t be surprised to see that happen.

Michael L. Taylor, MD, FACP
Chief Medical Officer
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