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February 7, 2020

Is 'Big Retail' the next big health care disruptor?

Daily Briefing

    When it comes to health care disruptors, all eyes have been on Big Tech, but "Big Retail" has been quietly growing its influence and might just be a bigger changemaker in the industry, Erin Brodwin reports for STAT +.

    Who are the innovative disruptors in care delivery?

    Background on Big Tech

    For years, Big Tech has been launching initiatives and strategic partnerships to tap into the $3.5 trillion U.S. health care market, Brodwin reports.

    Apple, for instance, last year announced that it will participate in three major health care studies using its research app in an effort to democratize how medical research is conducted. But, the studies, which are all tapped into new or planned applications of the Apple Watch and Apple's EHR capabilities, also offer tremendous commercial potential.

    And Google last year announced a 10-year partnership with Mayo Clinic that will allow the health system to expand its data storage capacity tenfold. It will also let the organizations more easily connect disparate datasets—like genetic, socioeconomic, and clinical data—to inform greater patient insights.

    But when it comes to health care, Big Tech doesn't always get glowing reviews. A 2018 Rock Health survey of 4,000 people found that only 11% of participants were willing to share their data with technology companies like Google and Amazon. Additionally, health care is often an in-person experience, something that tech companies can rarely provide consumers, Brodwin writes.

    Big Retail steps into the ring

    But while all eyes have been on Big Tech, Big Retail is also fighting for a slice of the health care market, Brodwin reports. Retailers such as AT&T, Best Buy, Comcast, and Walmart are all finding unique ways to turn their best-selling assets into health care tools.

    "Insofar as a retailer or telecom company can establish deep and high-trust relationships, that may represent the foundation of why this is exciting," Bill Evans, the managing director of Rock Health, said. "I expect them to deepen their investments and not pull back."

    Bringing health care to the home

    Best Buy and Comcast, for example, are looking to turn seniors' homes into sites for remote health care.

    Best Buy is taking a lesson from its Geek Squad, which installs and repairs home electronics, to form "health care squads" that can conduct house calls at the homes of senior who may have limited mobility, Brodwin reports. The mobile team places sensors throughout patients' homes to monitor their sleeping and eating habits. Then, the medical device company GreatCall observes the data and calls the patient's home to check in on them. Critical Signal Technologies, which Best Buy acquired in 2019, provides 24/7 patient monitoring.

    Best Buy began piloting its health care projects in the homes of one million seniors last year, according to CEO Corie Barry.

    Asheesh Saksena, the president of Best Buy's health division, said, "We're trying to bring tech into the home and use data and insights to provide a meaningful service."

    Comcast, meanwhile, is creating a health care platform for patients' TVs. The latest project is similar to one, called Quil, launched in 2018, which is designed to help patients prepare for and recover from surgery like hip replacements.

    The goal, according to Don Mathis, general manager of growth and strategic development at Comcast, "is to help people take better control of their health care."

    Brick and mortar family care

    And then there's Walmart, which last September opened its first standalone primary care clinic, called Walmart Health, in Dallas, Georgia. The clinic has been booked to capacity, the company said. According to Sean Slovenski, president of Walmart U.S. Health and Wellness, patient volume at the clinic has been 30% to 40% higher than what Walmart expected.

    Given the success, the retailer last week opened a second primary care clinic in Atlanta. The clinics provide primary and urgent care, labs, x-rays, and mental health counseling as well as dental, optical, and hearing services. Patients can visit the website, "Walmarthealth.com," to schedule appointments, which are offered on weeknights and weekends.

    The clinics' convenience and low prices have successfully set the company apart from the competition, and, according to Brodwin, maybe even Big Tech.

    While tech companies have worked to shift health care from brick and mortar buildings to digital apps and mobile devices, Walmart's success shows that "[r]etail isn't dead," Rock Health's Evans said.

    Patient track tools

    Another big retail name getting into the health care game is AT&T, which is using its wireless network to develop remote health care tools. The company started its work in health care about a decade ago, but recently began focusing on patient tracking, Browdin reports.

    For instance, the company is working to develop gurneys embedded with sensors that help EMTs and clinicians track patients. Another project involves collaborating with medical-bracelet company Zebra to create better forms of identification that also keep tabs on patients' location.

    According to Rod Cruz, AT&T's general manager of health care solutions , the company's labs are piloting tools for tracking patients between the ambulance, the ED, and the hospital.

    The work has led to more patient tracking products such as hospital kiosks that use facial recognition to check in patients.

    "We are very bullish on the rise of consumerism in health care," Cruz said (Brodwin, STAT +, 2/6).

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