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Walmart can address rural health care need

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Sam Walton started what would become the world’s largest company by focusing on small towns where consumers lacked access to a broad range of quality merchandise at low prices. Now, six decades later, Walmart is following his playbook as it looks to expand its reach in health and wellness.

The company, in conjunction with Medscape, has just released a report about how physicians, pharmacists and other practitioners view health care in rural America. The survey of more than 10,000 clinicians found that quality of care was the top concern in those communities. Troubling gaps between urban and rural areas exist across the board. The most egregious example is specialty care — only 35% of health care practitioners in rural areas rate it as very good or excellent, compared to 62% of their colleagues in urban communities. Divergences of 18% or higher emerged when the survey asked about hospitals, urgent care and chronic care.

The report clearly shows that the level of health care must be raised in rural areas, where some 60 million Americans live and work. Health care professionals generally agree on steps that can improve the quality of care — increase staffing, upgrade ­community support systems and enhance financial assistance programs for patients.

Walmart is well positioned to help address those issues.

As Dr. Cheryl Pegus, executive vice president of health and wellness, points out, the 4,000 stores that Walmart operates in medically underserved areas offer a variety of products and services to support people’s health and well-being. In addition to being one of the top three pharmacies in the U.S., the company provides fresh organic food at low prices; assists diabetes patients with the ReliOn private label line, which includes analog insulin, and a new virtual care initiative; and other digital tools that target health needs.

Walmart HealthMost promising of all are Walmart Health clinics, which bring a broad range of primary care, including medical, dental, optometry and behavioral health services, to the Walmart Supercenter. By emphasizing ease of access and affordable and transparent pricing, Walmart Health has struck a chord with consumers, increasing their engagement with providers.

The economics of health care remain a challenge. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon acknowledges that more work needs to be done to make Walmart Health viable at scale, but stresses that the company is committed to applying the customer-centric model that Sam Walton pioneered to health care. If the company succeeds, it will go a long way toward elevating the standard of care in rural America and throughout the country.


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