Bricks Versus Clicks: The Coming Battle for Patients and Consumers Emerges at HLTH

This week’s HLTH conference provided a stage for the diverse ways in which both traditional and non-traditional innovators are addressing unmet needs in healthcare, including novel models for delivery of care to people. In the spotlight were a range of tech-enabled delivery models, including live and asynchronous telemedicine, chatbots, voice technologies and other technology innovations. As an investor, it’s an exciting and rapidly developing area that holds promise for patients and consumers. However, I was also fascinated by the number of companies taking a different approach – one solidly based in the “real” bricks and mortar world. Instead of engaging patients and consumers online, retailers and pharmacies continue to invest in physical locations that integrate different healthcare services under one roof, and I’m wondering how these two models will play out.

Notably for example, Marcus Osborne, VP, Health Transformation at Walmart, described his company’s latest approach to bridging the care gap for consumers with a virtual tour of their new Health Center in Dallas, Georgia, that offers everything from primary care, imaging and other diagnostic tests, to mental health services, dental, optical, hearing, fitness and other community health benefits. Visitors can even access pet care there. Through Health Center, Walmart is also addressing health transparency by telling customers up front how much a visit will cost, instead of sending them a confusing bill months later like many providers and payers currently do.

Walmart isn’t the only retailer expanding into this area: Larry Merlo, President and CEO of CVS Health, described his company’s plans to add more HealthHubs at their stores, to complement the 1,100 MinuteClinics they already have. The demand for such services certainly seems there – Merlo told HealthLineDrive’s Rebecca Pifer that in the past decade since they opened, CVS’ MinuteClinics have treated 45 million people.

Expanding the physical footprint of healthcare facilities is one way to combat the growing shortage of healthcare providers in sparsely populated areas in the U.S., as well as to address the generational shift occurring in Americans’ relationship to primary care physicians. Nonetheless, it’s not difficult to imagine how the digital-first companies offering virtual models, which have similarly disrupted other consumer markets such as books, eyeglasses, transportation, sneakers and mattresses, might also positively impact healthcare, offering consumers and patients more affordable, convenient and personalized, on-demand access to healthcare.

Companies like Ro, Thirty Madison, Hims, Nurx and Modern Fertility have been growing fast as they offer technology-enabled platforms integrating education, services and a variety of medicines to people all over the U.S. These platforms focus on conditions such as hair loss, erectile dysfunction, birth control, fertility and beyond. What they’ve done is make the experience of getting access to these medicines – and a physician – personalized, simple and easy. This space is likely to continue to expand as other players with deeper pockets get into the field, like Amazon’s acquisition of PillPack last year, and more recently, its purchase of Health Navigator. Even Facebook is getting into the game, announcing this week it would launch a new preventative health service, to remind people to get flu shots, cholesterol tests and mammograms.

Ultimately, a key factor to what model will be more successful will depend on the patient experience. As I heard repeatedly at HLTH throughout keynotes, panels and in private discussions and meetings, the current healthcare system isn’t designed for the end user in mind. While the “consumerization” of healthcare is often mentioned as a way to encourage people to shop around for the best prices for healthcare services, the real revolution will come when a new model provides a better user experience, transparent pricing and more personalized care and ultimately, better outcomes.