Can Walmart help lower the cost of medical care?

Walmart is set to become a major player in affordable primary care.

The nation's largest retailer, who offers everything from back-to-school supplies to buckshot, has undertaken a surprising new initiative. So far, Walmart has opened six new primary care clinics inside its stores, in an attempt to turn some of its millions of loyal shoppers into loyal patients. The chain plans to open an additional six by the end of 2014.

The move may not surprise some readers. After all, it is not uncommon to see a bank, optometrists office or even an elder care specialist inside the chain's sprawling stores. But unlike these stores, the recently opened primary care clinics will be operated directly by Walmart. The corporation will be responsible for hiring the care providers, purchasing the medical equipment and dealing with patients' insurance.

On its website, Walmart lists a broad range of treatments available at the half dozen clinics already open. Patients can seek care for ailments ranging from acne to chronic disease management, all at Walmart's signature low cost. With its significant presence in rural communities, which readers of this blog will know are experiencing a crisis in the availability and affordability of care, Walmart could hugely impact the health care market. 

"If they're rolling it out across the rural stores primarily, they're actually filling an important gap in the health care ecosystem,"  Skip Snow, a health care analyst at Forrester Research, told the New York Times.

At a time when many health care facilities, especially those in rural areas, are experiencing issues with healthcare revenue cycle management, Walmart's endeavor could have far-reaching effect. If more rural residents are able to access primary care at these clinics, it could take some of the burden of the region's struggling emergency facilities.