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Inside Walmart's plan to make clinical trials more accessible


Walmart on Tuesday announced that it is launching a medical research institute that aims to make health care "safer, higher quality, and more equitable" by increasing access to clinical trials among underrepresented groups.

An ecosystem approach to achieving diversity in clinical trials

Walmart launches health care research institute

Walmart on Tuesday launched the Walmart Healthcare Research Institute (WHRI), which will focus on recruiting individuals from underrepresented groups, including older adults, rural residents, women, and racial/ethnic minorities, for clinical trials and research on chronic conditions.

So far, clinical trials have largely not been representative of the U.S. population since participants are typically individuals who live near research centers and have both the time and money to participate. In 2020, FDA found that 75% of clinical trial participants were white, 11% were Hispanic, 8% were Black, and 6% were Asian.

"At Walmart, we want to help ensure all our customers have access to high quality, affordable and convenient healthcare resources, including innovative research," said John Wigneswaran, the company's CMO. "We know our customers are interested in participating in healthcare research, but many have not had access until now. We are already making an impact for our customers and for medical research, by raising patient trust and engagement in their care."

Currently, 90% of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart, and almost 4,000 stores are in underserved areas. According to Wigneswaran, this will help the company connect with customers and patients closer to where they live and work. WHRI plans to partner with pharmaceutical companies, clinical research organizations, and academic medical centers to help identify and recruit participants.

Initially, the institute will focus on clinical trials for diseases that most impact underrepresented communities, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Covid-19, and asthma. In the future, it will also consider research on other conditions like HIV and dementia.

To ensure the most beneficial clinical trials are chosen and patients receive appropriate communications, Wigneswaran said WHRI will have an independent review board, as well as a clinical advisory board, oversee all projects.

"This is a remarkable initiative by Walmart, addressing a critically important issue by leveraging their reach, resources, and influence," said Harlan Krumholz, from the Yale New Haven Hospital Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation. "As a trusted brand, I am hopeful that their efforts will make research more readily available to so many who have not had the opportunity to participate and also produce progress toward greater health equity."

Competition heats up in the clinical research space among retailers

According to Reuters, Walmart is the latest retailer to expand into clinical research, joining both Walgreens and CVS Health.

CVS Health first launched its clinical trial unit in 2021, and since then, the company has conducted studies to track the emergence of new coronavirus variants through a contract with HHS. Currently, CVS is working on a flu study, as well as a collaboration with Pfizer to study the long-term effects of Covid-19.

In addition, Walgreens previously partnered with the University of North Texas Health Science Center in 2018 for a study on African American HIV patients. In June, the company launched its own clinical trial services to increase diversity among trial participants.

According to a Walgreens spokesperson, the company is currently in discussions with "many leading pharmaceutical companies" about patient recruitment, virtual or hybrid clinical trials, and diversity initiatives.

"Walgreens is making a push to utilize their stores to reach their more diverse population in their clinical trials, so it seems feasible that that's something that Walmart may eventually want to do as well," said Carri Chan, a professor at Columbia Business School. (Devereaux, Modern Healthcare, 10/11; McLymore, Reuters, 10/11; Japsen, Forbes, 10/11; Gans, The Hill, 10/11; Walmart news release, 10/11)

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