Why Walmart’s exit from healthcare is a wake-up call to providers

By Marty Bonick, president & CEO of Ardent HealthA person in a suit and tie

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Try healthcare, they said. It will be easy. There's so much to improve, they said. We can do it better.

While "they" — the retailers and disruptors once keen to transform healthcare — weren't completely wrong, there's no doubt this thinking has shifted in recent months. 

Walmart's decision to shutter its health clinics and virtual care services is the latest high-profile exit in the retail health sector. Already this year, Walgreens has announced plans to close 160 VillageMD clinics while Amazon cut jobs within its One Medical unit and Optum is closing its telehealth business.

Once lured by the promise of leveraging their scale and customer relationships, these disruptors saw an opportunity to make primary care more convenient and affordable. And they have — improving access for many, in both large urban and rural communities.

But nontraditional providers have struggled to build deeper relationships with patients who need care beyond the transactional nature of a retail health or virtual care visit. When coupled with the headwinds all providers have faced for years, the challenge has proven too much for some companies. Walmart blamed its retreat on a "broken business model," citing rising costs and a difficult reimbursement environment.
Their decision underscores both the difficult truth (yes, healthcare is hard) and tremendous opportunity facing health systems and other traditional providers who are uniquely positioned to succeed in this changing landscape. 

From a single office or virtual visit to a hospital stay for a complex health episode and beyond, traditional providers alone can provide the ecosystem of care that patients will need across a lifetime. Leveraging our scale and expertise along with trust earned over decades, innovative health systems have the ability to build the longitudinal relationships that help people stay healthy and enable success in a value-based environment. 
These same factors also position us to withstand real economic challenges such as staff shortages, inflation and low reimbursements. With the support of technology, we can manage chronic health conditions and provide holistic care across a variety of settings — a contrast to the fragmented experience offered by retail clinics and other point solutions. 
Yet, it's a moment providers must rise to meet. For too long we have told ourselves that if we build it, they will come. But times have changed. Today’s consumers have expectations fueled by the ease with which they access almost every other service. 

Now is the time to take a hard look at how we can create a better experience for our patients and caregivers and remove the friction that too often comes with accessing — and delivering — our services. 

That’s why Ardent Health and other systems have invested heavily in building ecosystems of care to help consumers access services on their terms. From a digital front door that allows people to schedule appointments, message providers and receive virtual care on demand to convenient urgent care and ambulatory surgery centers, we must meet patients where they are.

This consumer-centric philosophy is also driving investment in technology such as artificial intelligence-powered wearables to automate the collection of vital signs, virtual nursing and remote monitoring solutions that enable care outside the hospital. These efforts not only improve care, but also reduce the burden on caregivers and allow them to work at the top of their license.

Much has been made of the impact to traditional health systems from disruptors like Walmart, Amazon, CVS and others. I maintain that the biggest threat to our industry is our own unwillingness to disrupt ourselves. 

From cradle to grave, health systems have the unique opportunity to care for patients across their health journeys. It’s a responsibility and a privilege we can never take lightly, and the reason we must continue to evolve.

As recent events remind us, it’s an advantage that’s ours to lose.