What’s Old is New Again in Healthcare – Perspectives from Former Walmart Healthcare Executive

On the latest The Combustion Chronicles podcast, host Shawn Nason sits down with Sean Slovenski, CEO at BioIQ and former SVP and President of Walmart Health & Wellness. Together they discussed Walmart’s foray into healthcare, the challenge of introducing new technologies into healthcare and what the future holds. It was, however, Slovenski’s comments about healthcare history repeating itself that I found most fascinating.

Healthcare at Scale

“As an entrepreneur you dream of having the biggest impact you can,” said Slovenski and for him, presiding over Walmart’s healthcare initiative was the epitome of that dream. “The wellness division had close to 100,000 people. It was serving tens of millions of customers. Half of America walks through Walmart’s doors on a weekly basis.”

The size and scale of Walmart’s business gave Slovenski and his team a unique perspective on healthcare in America. “What we came to realize is that most of America can’t really afford or doesn’t have access to basic care.” shared Slovenski. This, of course, played right into Walmart’s expertise of creating a convenient one-stop shop with the best products at the best price.

The Challenge of New Things

Anyone who has spent time in healthcare or has been a healthcare entrepreneur knows how challenging it is to introduce something new. It doesn’t matter if it is a technology, process or clinical treatment, there is an inherent bias towards the status quo in healthcare that is stronger than most other industries.

“It’s not an easy task to invent something new in healthcare,” stated Slovenski. “And certainly not an easy task to create something that is largely cash-based and affordable for the average American, but we were able to do it thanks to the capabilities of Walmart. I’m very proud of those efforts and the impact it is having on people.”

What’s Old is New Again

There were many aspects of Walmart’s approach to healthcare that were new:

  • a direct payment model that bypassed the intrenched healthcare reimbursement system;
  • multi-disciplinary practices so that patients could go to one spot to get everything they need (diagnosis, treatment, testing and medications);
  • a focus on consumer conveniences

However, any historian will tell you that this concept of a one-stop shop for healthcare is a throwback to the pioneer days where local apothecaries were the one place townsfolk would go to get the care and medications they needed. Slovenski made mention of this during the podcast:

“Welcome to the 1400s, maybe even earlier, where the pharmacist, the apothecary was the doctor, was the medicine man, and was the nurse, and the birther, and everything else for that community. We’re just getting back to that. The only reason why that changed was because managed care started putting constraints and laws started coming into place, and it basically minimized the role of the pharmacist.”

This concept of returning to older models of care and taking lessons from history is something I’m becoming more passionate about.

For a recent #hcldr tweetchat, I wrote an article about the lessons we could use from history to encourage more people to wear masks and prevent the spread of COVID-19. I was growing increasingly frustrated with the heavy-handed ways that were being used – public shaming of non-mask wearers, vocal (and sometimes violent) confrontations, and denial of service.

To me, there were obvious parallels with the use of seatbelts in the 1960s and condoms in the 1980s during the HIV crisis. In both situations, the tactics we are currently using for mask-wearing were proven to be ineffective. Yet, we seem to have convinced ourselves that COVID-19 is a wholly unique situation and that novel methods are the only ones that can be deployed against this novel virus.

Slovenski’s suggestion of using history as a source of inspiration and guidance struck a chord with me:

“There’s a lot of stuff that people are ‘inventing’ that actually isn’t new. It has been done before and may actually be hundreds of years old. It’s just now people are rediscovering it. I always encourage people to go back to the basics. Think about parents, grandparents, great grandparents and ask for stories of what they did.

I was just having a conversation with a company yesterday. They were talking about this great new thing they’re doing. They’re having people do a video call with the physician and if need be, that doctor will go to their house, and just how amazing, and futuristic, and great this is. I said: That’s awesome. Back in 1912, my great grandfather in the family stories broke his arm. And the doctor came to his house and fixed his arm, and they paid him with a chicken and two pigs. So, welcome to 1912. You’re a genius.”

To listen to the full podcast click here.

About the author

Colin Hung

Colin Hung

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.