Following the implementation in February 2008 of in-store health clinics in Atlanta, Little Rock and Dallas under “The Clinic at Wal-Mart” brand, Wal-Mart now has its sights set on the holistic health market with the opening of Wal-Mart Community Acupuncture clinics in several major urban centers across America by years end. Wal-Mart Senior Vice President and president, health and wellness Dr. John Agwaunobi said, “Chinese medicine and pharmacology are a great treasure house and efforts should be made to increase both access and affordability, which seem to go hand in hand.”
Since a 2005 initiative to both quell public criticism toward its business practices, as well as operate more efficiently controlling costs, Wal-Mart has enacted massive environmental measures, making good on its pledge to be “good stewards for the environment”, as CEO Lee Scott has said. Indeed, the world’s most profitable corporation is touting locally grown produce in stores nationwide, ensuring that its fine jewelry lines are traceable and joining forces with the World Wildlife Fund to save the world’s most valuable and threatened forests. And while critics of Wal-Mart assail the corporation for its treatment of workers in regards to healthcare coverage, Wal-Mart employees, or associates, can become eligible for individual health coverage costing as little as $5 per month in some areas and as little as $8 per month nationwide. 92% of associates have health insurance. Add to this a menu of 2400 generic prescription drugs for $4 and Wal-Mart seems to be placing associates healthcare needs at the forefront of its priorities. But with the addition of Wal-Mart Community Acupuncture (WCA) and The Clinic at Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart is setting its sights on the healthcare needs of the 100 million customers that visit their stores each week. “We know that America’s healthcare challenges are larger than any one corporation, but we’re committed to doing our part to expand access to quality, affordable healthcare – our commitment to provide a proven alternative modality like acupuncture to the American public is evidence,’ said Agwunobi. ‘WCA will allow the average American to experience the benefit of acupuncture at a fraction of the cost of what it retails for in private practices nationwide.” WCA will pioneer a group acupuncture treatment model in which patients are treated on recliners in an open, large room with an initial visit fee of $20 dollars and a follow-up fee of just $15. It is this price structure that Wal-Mart believes will fill the WCA clinics with customers with little to no experience with acupuncture.
The WCA project is partnering with several privately owned acupuncture schools on both coasts to field pilot clinics with recent graduates at The Clinic at Wal-Mart in both Dallas and Atlanta. Wal-Mart will take over the schools, four in total, after the 2009 spring session and educate acupuncturists in classrooms adjoining select WCA facilities. Tuition for students at the acupuncture colleges will be free provided that they sign a contract to work for WCA for a specified amount of time at a specified pay scale. The aim is for the acupuncture education system to resemble that of the western medical model in regards to residency programs, where graduating students can request to live and work in a certain area, but ultimately the decision is made for them.
“Our vision of the future is to transform healthcare for our community,” said Peter Banko, St. Vincent Health System’s president and chief executive officer, Wal-Mart’s walk in clinic partner in Little Rock. Banko is convinced that WCA will be part of a cost effective solution to the staggering rise in healthcare costs that is crippling the American economy. “We work every day towards that vision and the clinics that we will operate in Wal-Mart Supercenters will be a great solution for patients who come to us for health and healing.”
Wal-Mart’s entrance into the holistic health market comes on the heels of a 2006 effort to expand its customer base and the corporation now understands that customers fall into three main groups: “brand aspirationals” (people with low incomes who are obsessed with names like KitchenAid), “price-sensitive affluents” (wealthier shoppers who love deals), and “value-price shoppers” (people who like low prices and cannot afford much more). The new categories are significant because for the first time, Wal-Mart thinks it finally understands not just how people shop at its stores, but why they shop the way they do. This insight keyed executives to the burgeoning holistic health market, and they reasoned that these will be the same categories of people who come to WCA for acupuncture.
According to Agwunobi, the joint venture of Eastern meets Western medicine is part of a long term goal of opening 400 in store clinics by 2010 and is further proof of Wal-Mart’s commitment to providing affordable, accessible solutions to America’s healthcare challenges. Not everyone is excited, however, and critics of the plan are voicing their concern. Spokesperson for Acupuncturists Against Wal-Mart, Kathleen Golder, talked recently about the possible negative effects of the Wal-Mart clinics. “We are very concerned about the effect that Wal-Mart Community Acupuncture will have on both the acupuncture professional community and the public at large. A few of our concerns include a possible conflict of interest regarding traditional teachings and the merchandise sold and lifestyle encouraged at Wal-Mart leading to dilution and distortion of the classical teachings, the cornering of the school market leading to the closing of long operating private institutions, the destruction of the private room model, the destruction of non-Wal-Mart community acupuncture practices and lower wages for acupuncturists.” Agwunobi counters that not all acupuncturists have similar concerns, and that the clinics in Dallas and Little Rock as well as the teaching faculty at its schools will be staffed by non-Wal-mart trained acupuncturists. “There is no shortage of acupuncturists who are behind Wal-mart Community Acupuncture, in fact they have been among some of our most ardent supporters. Acupuncturists have been lining up to be a part of the this project. As always, Wal-Mart is creating jobs for Americans while providing low prices for consumers. It is a win-win situation for the many acupuncturists who need jobs and the public that can benefit from their skills. This is something that you won’t hear critics mention much. They will never talk about the needs of the unemployed or patients, just their professional community. It’s selfish.”
While it is no stranger to controversy, Wal-Mart has high hopes for WCA and The Clinic at Wal-mart. Projected benefits of the programs include the immediate availability of acupuncture to massive and unreachable markets of patients, free education for acupuncture students, jobs for failed private practice acupuncturists and the creation of new, guaranteed jobs for Wal-Mart trained acupuncturists. With its network of some 3800 stores in the US alone, Wal-Mart is in a unique position to introduce untold masses of Americans to a medicine that has weathered the test of time. The future looks bright for WCA and the patients who will go their for healing.