NEW YORK—While the significant role Walmart has played in American retail over the past 50 years is readily apparent, the company’s effort to provide health care services, especially to underserved individuals and rural markets, has often gone unnoticed, in spite of the major effort Walmart is making in the health care sector. This was one of the underlying themes in the VM Summit presentation of David Reitnauer, vice president for health and wellness, and specialized services at Walmart Inc.

Addressing the landscape in retail health, Reitnauer told attendees that Walmart has been in the pharmacy business for over 40 years and in the optical retail sector for over 30 years, “but we’ve really started to accelerate in the last decade.”

He noted that when Walmart launched its affordable generic drug program in 2006 ($4 to fill any generic drug prescription) the company believed this unique offering would be an incredible way to drive store traffic and sales. But what the company also discovered was that in addition to “taking share from the competition and things of that nature,” there were many Walmart customers who weren’t getting the care they needed because they couldn’t afford the medication. This led to escalating health issues for this group.

This idea is what forms the company’s thinking around “affordable access to care,” he noted. “We want to make sure that we’re providing affordable access to care, and there has been tremendous learning around the $4 prescription program.”

Reitnauer also noted that Walmart works diligently to “get the base model right,” particularly as it relates to the company’s new Health Centers. Reitnauer leads Walmart’s optical and audiology businesses, including retail sales, lab manufacturing and doctor of optometry relationships.

“The number one reason people want to come to work at Walmart is scale,” he told the audience. “And so what we have to do is make sure that when we scale something, we do it right.” Reitnauer noted that during the pandemic Walmart took time to reevaluate its Health Center model and worked to “put the customer in the center of everything we want to do.”

With its nationwide store base, Walmart has grown to a position in which 90 percent of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of its stores, and 70 percent of the population lives within 5 miles of a Walmart store. Reitnauer noted that the company has achieved an NPS (net promoter score) of 80 with its health care offerings, and that the retailer is set up to provide telehealth services across all 50 states via its 2021 acquisition of MeMD, a multi-specialty telehealth provider.

“Four thousand of our stores are in medically underserved communities,” Reitnauer said. “Those are the things that give us the right to say that we can play in health care, and also to say we can provide care in those medically underserved communities, and medically underserved doesn’t just mean rural today. A lot of inner cities are medically underserved.”

He added, “We want to make sure that the customer feels like whether [he or she] is going to the optometrist, or the dentist or the doctor, that everyone knows what’s going on with [their] case. ‘Everyone knows what’s going on with me and I don’t have to repeat it time and time again,’” he said, echoing the typical patient. Walmart had approximately 20 of its new Health Centers at the beginning of the year, with plans to add more in 2022.

A few days after Reitnauer’s presentation at the VM Summit, Walmart announced that it would expand the Health Center format with the opening of five new Walmart Health centers across North and Central Florida. This marks the company’s expansion of this new format in Florida, beginning with Jacksonville. Four additional locations in Florida will open this month in the Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa areas, the company said.

In its vision centers, Reitnauer noted that the company has a new prototype format, which it will have rolled out to 40 percent of its store base by the end of the year. The overall plan is to roll out the new vision center prototype to “in excess of 400 stores a year” and to provide this updated look and feel as a way to make sure customers have this more modern environment for their care. Walmart operates more than 2,800 vision centers nationwide.

Reitnauer also commented on the success of the recent Walmart partnership in eyewear with Elton John.

“It isn’t just a partnership with Elton John eyewear [with the idea] ‘Hey, here are some frames.’ It is really a partnership with who he is and this is an incredible story...And if you think of an iconic eyewear individual, that’s Elton John.”

Then three prominent optometrists—Solomon Gould, OD, Jennifer Stewart, OD and Amanda Nanasy, OD, held a three-way conversation which focused on how they are expanding their scope of practice to include new methods of primary care that open new access points for patients, while also differentiating their practices.

Dr. Solomon Gould is a professional speaker, practice management consultant, author and practice owner of two private practices in the Twin Cities. The 4th generation optometrist with over 14 years of consulting experience for both the private and public sectors said, “The field of optometry has stepped up over the past year.” Dr. Gould pointed to three prominent trends in optometry: the rise of preventive holistic care, new technologies, such as telehealth, and a serious movement to take eyecare to the next level.

Dr. Gould started the conversation by quizzing the audience about what is the most common sports injury today—and the collective audience response was concussion.

Dr. Nanasy specializes in performance vision enhancement and vision rehabilitation after concussion and she practices at two locations—the Florida Institute of Sports Vision and The Eye Center of Pembroke Pines. Dr. Nanasy said, “I give my patients above what they expect—comprehensive care and education about concussion.” She stressed that all optometrists and athletes, especially children, need to be educated about the dangers and treatment of concussion.

She also talked about how eye tracking technology, such as RightEye, could be used as part of a sports vision evaluation. “Technology like RightEye allows me to show patients exactly what’s happening with their vision. It has also allowed me to learn how to use prism to correct the misalignment of patients’ eyes.”

Dr. Stewart is a nationally recognized speaker, with a passion for helping optometrists and organizations with operations, optical success, contact lens sales and practice management through her company OD Perspectives and she is a partner at Norwalk EyeCare in Connecticut.

“I am passionate about sports vision and my goal is that all ODs should have an idea about what sports vision is. Eyecare protection has come a long way—it’s no longer about massive goggles. The paradigm is shifting on what we are wearing for sports protection, which is good because the stats on injuries are concerning.

“Today’s ODs need to be compliant with the standards associated with lenses and UV protection. But it’s just as important for them to be up-to-date on the latest technologies for patients’ vision protection,” she said.