Viewpoint: Walmart's healthcare strategy is 'a little offense and a little defense'

Though healthcare is not known for being particularly open to lasting change, Walmart's ongoing attempt to revolutionize care delivery with its consumer-first approach could be the one that sticks, according to Knowledge@Wharton.

In a recent podcast from the business analysis journal, Mark Pauly, PhD, a professor of healthcare management at the Philadelphia-based Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Robert Field, PhD, a professor of health management and policy at Philadelphia-based Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health, discussed Walmart's push into healthcare.

Dr. Field described the strategy as "a little offense and a little defense." Walmart has gone on the offensive by attempting to translate its longstanding retail dominance into the level of trust needed to be successful as a healthcare provider, and on the defensive by quickly expanding its healthcare efforts in order to stay ahead of competitors.

"Medicine has always been the ultimate personal business, where [consumers are] more aligned to a human being than to a product. You don't care where you get your statin, but you do care who your doctor is," Dr. Field said. "In general, we've been seeing healthcare become more corporate, less personal. Is that trend going to continue, or are we seeing a wall that Walmart is going to hit, and it's not going to be able to truly commercialize primary care the way it would like to?"

Both Dr. Field and Dr. Pauly said this strategy could therefore go either way: Walmart faces plenty of obstacles — especially in branding, logistics and consumer trust — but is also perhaps the retailer best positioned to conduct this "experiment" since, unlike Amazon, it already has a massive brick-and-mortar infrastructure.

"My view is, knock yourself out," Dr. Pauly said. "Innovation is a good idea generally, although in healthcare most innovation has not been successful. But when firms are willing to invest their own money in trying to do something imaginative, if they succeed, that's to the good of consumers, and if they don't, that's to the harm of their stockholders. But that's the way progress is going to be made."

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