Walmart tests medical centers at rural US stores

Walmart healthcare strategy takes advantage of 'big parking lots close to people'

America's largest retailer is testing its mettle in the healthcare industry, potentially reshaping the way millions of Americans receive medical treatment.

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At a Walmart in Calhoun, Georgia, 70 miles outside of Atlanta, a structure has been added to the right side -- a look akin to the home and gardening areas at the company's Supercenters -- with a separate entrance for the staff and patients of  "Walmart Health."

The site, which opened in January, allows patients to see a doctor for routine checkups and treatment for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, even if they don't have health insurance.  It's only one of two in the country. The first opened in Dallas, Georgia, last September.

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A dominant force in America's retail market, which makes up about 12% of the U.S. economy, Walmart sees a chance for growth by expanding in the healthcare industry, which accounts for a slightly larger portion -- about 15%.

"Health care looks like a big opportunity," Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told investors last month, explaining that the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company's health-care strategy "takes advantage of big boxes and big parking lots close to people."

The waiting room at a Walmart Health site. (Photo courtesy of Walmart)

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Climbing healthcare costs and limited access to medical treatment pose particular challenges in rural communities. Walmart selected the two sites in Georgia because they're contending with higher rates of chronic disease than the average U.S. town as well as a shortage of primary-care physicians.

The company believes it can fill a gap, both for customers who lack healthcare coverage and those who scrape by on a plan with high deductibles or out-of-pocket costs. The retailer's goal is to replace visits to primary care physicians with more routine stops at a clinic -- a different approach than CVS took with its Minute Clinics, which offer basic treatment for the occasional strep throat or ear infection.

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Amazon, one of Walmart's rivals, is also trying to slide into the healthcare industry. In 2018, the Seattle-based e-commerce giant acquired mail-order pharmacy PillPack. Amazon previously joined with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase in an attempt to give 1 million employees and family members of the companies better health care choices and lower prices.

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