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Wal-Mart VP offers his health insight to Bill Frist and friends

Wal-Mart VP offers his health insight to Bill Frist and friends
by Eleanor Kennedy | Nashville Business Journal | Feb 13, 2015

Americans are smarter – and have the potential to be healthier – than we give ourselves credit for.

That’s according to Marcus Osborne, vice president of health and wellness payer relations at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., who chatted with former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist about consumerism in health care during a Nashville Health Care Council event Friday afternoon.

To prove his point, Osborne told Frist the usual guesses for Wal-Mart’s top selling product are things like Cheetos, Coke or other standards of the lazy, fat American archetype. In fact, Osborne said, Wal-Mart’s No. 1 seller by units is bananas, proof that consumers are capable of smart, healthy choices.

Once he got a sense of Wal-Mart’s reach – more than half of Americans will shop at Walmart in the next week, and a lot of men will be there buying flowers and candy in the next 24 hours, according to Osborne – Frist pivoted the conversation to the issue of access and how the mega-retailer is using its broad reach to engage in health care.

While Osborne said the industry is one where Wal-Mart is still somewhat “under-developed,” he did list four primary ways the retailer is working in the field: through its pharmacy, through over-the-counter pills and products, at ancillary services like vision and hearing clinics, and in its relatively new clinical services location.

The last category is the smallest for Wal-Mart, but also the fastest emerging, Osborne said. The company now operates retail clinics in three markets, after launching in one last year.

Originally, Wal-Mart’s vision for retail clinics looked a lot like competitors Walgreens and CVS: partnerships with venture-backed clinic businesses, staffed by nurse practitioners.

But “they just never really felt good,” Osborne said. Although the clinics did increase access some, the health team at Wal-Mart couldn’t prove they were improving outcomes in communities, nor were they driving down costs.

So now Wal-Mart has shifted to a more complete primary care model, minus X-ray machines and other advanced diagnostic tools. Even without those capabilities, consumers can get about 80-90 percent of their needed primary care at a Walmart clinic, Osborne said.

It’s another example of consumers being smarter than you think, he said, and also wanting something different than what thought leaders assume. When Wal-Mart operated its less expansive clinics, Osborne said, they surveyed patients to find out what would make them more likely to return, as well as people who chose not to get care there to find out what might make them come in.

As one example, he said, women were likely to say they’d want to get their annual exams at a Wal-Mart clinic, procedures Osborne suspects most health care leaders would assume no one would want taking place at that nation’s largest retailer.

Consumers engage with the health care system how they want, not how you want them to, Osborne said, and figuring that out is key to building successful new models.

That task gets even more complicated with millennials, he added. Wal-Mart may someday refine its health care efforts to have a stronger mobile or telehealth component, he said, because for that age group, it’s “how I want it, when I want it.”

Beyond that, Osborne noted, no one, Wal-Mart included, totally knows how to reach us troublesome millennials (I’ll admit it, I’m a proud member of the oft-maligned group).

“I haven’t seen anybody who’s prepared yet,” Osborne said. “But you better start getting prepared.”

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