Wal-Mart seizes the moment with e-health care solution...and lessons are many

Love 'em, or hate 'em, Wal-Mart is clearly among the most innovative and successful companies on the planet over the last half-century. Critics typically point to the company's sheer size and relentless cost cutting as the pillars of Wal-Mart's success, but constant innovation in business model, use of technology, are supply chain management are at least as important. The company also has a finely-tuned understanding of its markets and a willingness to make intelligent bets on the future (witness the current substantial push toward sustainability).

Today's New York Times article on Wal-Mart's new initiative to sell a digital medical records solution to small doctor's office is a perfect example -- and one with any number of lessons to other companies trying to sell high-value packaged solutions.

The initiative is interesting enough: Wal-Mart is partnering with Dell and a small software company, eClinicalWorks, to offer an integrated package to small medical practices at a much lower cost than competitive offers. It's a big opportunity. Few small medical offices today have computerized records, according to The Times, but more than three-quarters of all U.S. physicians work in offices of ten doctors or fewer. Wal-Mart's offering will come through its Sam's Club division, which already counts some 200,000 doctors within its membership.

From a marketing and solutions perspective, though, the initiative suggests a number of lessons that are more widely applicable:

  • Think Different. Wal-Mart is clearly not a technology or medical solutions provider, but if the opportunity is big enough and the company has the potential to respond in an innovative way, why not take a look? As Marcus Osborne, senior director for health care business development at Wal-Mart, told The Times, "We're a high-volume, low-cost company. And I would argue that mentality is sorely lacking in the health care industry."
  • Think Solutions. Lots of company offer products and services to support digital health records, but, especially for small doctor's offices, the convenience of a packaged solution that includes equipment, software, installation, and ongoing support can be a much more attractive offer. Importantly, in this case, eClinicalWorks provides its software as a service (SaaS), making ongoing support easier and less costly than with traditional installed systems.
  • Think Partners. The new offer is potentially a big win-win-win for all three partners. Wal-Mart gets the expertise and credibility of working with leaders in a market in which it has little experience; Dell and eClinicalWorks get the enormous visibility and channel power of Wal-Mart. None of them could go it alone with anywhere near the impact.
  • Think Timing. The new initiative is perfectly timed. Not only is digital health care prominent on the political agenda in Washington, but Obama's stimulus package includes substantial financial incentives for physician's offices to go digital.
  • Think Mission. Along with great timing, the initiative has the benefit of serving a larger social mission, improving health care for all. As citizens increasingly look to corporate America to help solve problems and not just make money, tying to a larger mission can only help.
  • Think Proof. The initiative has credibility not only because Dell is a leader in small office computers and eClinicalWorks is already providing its service to some 25,000 physicians. As important, Wal-Mart itself has tested and used the system in its own, in-store health clinics over the last two and a half years.
"If Wal-Mart is successful, this could be a game-changer," Dr. David J. Brailer, former national coordinator for health information technology in the Bush administration told The Times.

For me, it's also a wonderful lesson in solutions marketing. Do you agree?

*For an interview about the initiative with Girish Kuman, CEO of eClinicalWorks, click here.

Photo credit: D'Arcy Norman

Note: Cross-posted on Reputation to Revenue.

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