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Something Wal-Mart This Way Comes

Philip Betbeze, for HealthLeaders Magazine, July 10, 2008
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But should your hospital get into the quick-clinic business with the big retailers?

Wal-Mart, the retail behemoth that seems to rearrange the laws of economics for every slice of the economy that it enters, came slam-bang into the business of healthcare services in February when it trumpeted a new model of in-store health clinics that would be co-branded with local hospitals.

Some hospitals that didn't already have a convenience clinic strategy may have scrambled to respond to the threat, but perhaps they shouldn't have bothered. Since that release, Wal-Mart has delivered little news, and the company's announcement of a deal with Little Rock's St. Vincent Health System seems to have been premature, at least according to Alan Winkler, St. Vincent's vice president of clinic operations. At press time, Winkler acknowledged that the hospital system was still working on a possible deal to co-brand some of Wal-Mart's local convenience care clinics under the hospital system's name but that "no papers have been signed yet."

All this comes after the retail giant was embarrassed in 2007 with the shutdown of a former partner, CheckUps, which closed 23 clinic locations in Wal-Mart stores in four states. Wal-Mart's media relations office did not answer repeated requests for comment for this story.

Wal-Mart isn't alone in looking toward local hospitals for credibility. Many retailers feel they need a trusted local brand to attract a profitable level of patients. Drugstore chains Rite-Aid and CVS are also eagerly looking for local hospitals with which to sign staffing and branding partnerships.

For hospitals, the small walk-in clinics, which are generally staffed with nurses, nurse practitioners, or physician assistants, can reduce traffic that clogs their emergency departments with an assortment of low-acuity ailments. For retailers, it's a way to conveniently locate the place of treatment with a pharmacy only steps away. For patients, it's a low-hassle, low-cost way to get minor maladies treated quickly and efficiently. But should hospitals partner with retailers, or are they missing opportunities to develop these facilities on their own?

The American Hospital Association isn't sure because of the many variables involved.

"The development of these things is a market-specific decision by the hospital," says Richard Wade, senior vice president of communications with the AHA.

Wade warns that quick clinics discourage patients who typically don't go to the doctor from establishing a medical home.

"This will work for you if you're being proactive in coordinating care," he says, adding that hospitals should be sure they are directing future business toward their employed and affiliated physicians, who sometimes see convenient care clinics as a competitive threat.

The no-risk strategy
Baltimore's MedStar Health has a partnership with Rite-Aid to open four MedStar PromptCare-branded walk-in clinics this summer—two in Washington, DC, and two in Baltimore, with an idea of expanding to approximately 20 locations if the idea works as anticipated.

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