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May 1st, 2024, marked a turning point for Walmart’s healthcare ambitions. All 51 Walmart Health clinics in six states will be closed, and the giant retailer will end virtual health care services, the company said Tuesday.

The company had opened these clinics next to its superstores, and offered primary and urgent care, labs, X-rays, behavioral health and dental work. It had expected that it could use its massive financial scale and store base to offer convenient, low-cost services to patients in rural and underserved areas that lacked primary care options.

The decision, came as a shock to many. Just five years ago, Walmart had entered the healthcare scene with a bold promise: to disrupt the system and provide high-quality, low-cost care as an alternative to traditional doctor’s offices. Their clinics offered primary care, urgent care, x-rays, and even dental work, all conveniently located next door to the familiar blue vestibules.

“Health care looks like a big opportunity,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillion said in 2020, shortly after the first clinics opened.

However, the dream of revolutionizing healthcare proved elusive. Walmart cited “challenging reimbursement environments and escalating operating costs” as reasons for the closure. In simpler terms, the clinics just weren’t profitable enough. This echoed a wider trend – Walgreens had recently shuttered a significant number of their own in-store clinics, suggesting that the retail healthcare model might not be sustainable in the current climate.

Ateev Mehrotra, a professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School who researches retail health clinics said Walmart’s closures reflect the challenges for primary care providers in the United States.

The closure leaves many patients scrambling for alternatives. Walmart has assured them that existing appointments will still be honored, and they’re working to connect patients with other providers within their insurance networks. However, finding a new doctor, especially in underserved areas, can be a daunting task.

The impact goes beyond patients. Hundreds of healthcare workers, from doctors and nurses to administrative staff, now face an uncertain future. Walmart has offered them the opportunity to transfer to other positions within the company, but for many, this may not be a viable option.

The story of Walmart’s healthcare experiment serves as a cautionary tale. While the goal of affordable, accessible care was noble, the execution proved difficult. The complex landscape of healthcare reimbursement and the high cost of operation ultimately proved insurmountable.

However, Walmart’s exit doesn’t necessarily negate the potential of retail healthcare entirely. It simply underscores the need for a more sustainable model. The future of affordable healthcare access remains an open question, and Walmart’s story serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle to find a solution that works for everyone.