March 11, 2009

Wal-Mart To Adopt Electronic Health Records

Wal-Mart announced it is moving into the business of electronic health records in an attempt to bring the technology into the mainstream for physicians in small offices, the International Herald Tribune reported on Wednesday.

The company said its package deal of hardware, software, installation, maintenance and training will make the technology more accessible and affordable, drastically undercutting rival health information technology suppliers.

Marcus Osborne, Wal-Mart's senior director of health care business development, said Wal-Mart is a high-volume, low-cost company and argued that such a mentality was sorely lacking in the health care industry.

Wal-Mart said it plans to team its Sam's Club division with Dell for computers and eClinicalWorks, a fast-growing private company, for software.

Available this spring, the Sam's Club offering will be under $25,000 for the first physician in a practice, and about $10,000 for each additional doctor. The company estimates that after the installation and training, the continuing annual costs for maintenance and support will be around $4,000 to $6,500 a year.

Wal-Mart's move into health information technology has been a long time coming. About 200,000 health care providers, mostly doctors, are among Sam Club's 47 million members.

Todd Matherly, vice president of health and wellness at Sam's Club, said the company's research showed the technology was becoming less costly and raising interest among small physician practices.

Experts say the administration plan's financial incentives could accelerate the program's adoption. Most health experts agree that the migration from paper to digital records can curb costs and improve care when used properly.

However, many physicians in small offices doubt the wisdom of switching to electronic health records, given their cost and complexity.

A government-sponsored survey published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that only about 17 percent of the nation's physicians were using computerized patient records.

Bigger physician groups have already adopted the widespread use of electronic health records, but three-fourths of the nation's doctors work in small practices of 10 physicians or fewer.

Some experts believe that Wal-Mart has the potential to bring not only lower costs but also an efficient distribution channel to cater to smaller physician groups, as traditional health technology suppliers have mostly shunned the small physician offices because it has been costly to sell to them.

Dr. David Brailer, former national coordinator for health information technology in the Bush administration, told the International Herald Tribune that if Wal-Mart is successful, it could be a game-changer.

Dell is providing either a desktop or a tablet personal computer in the package. Many physicians prefer the tablet PC so that they don't have to treat patients from behind a computer screen.

The electronic record and practice management software, for billing and patient registration will be provided by eClinicalWorks, which is used by 25,000 physicians, mostly in small practices.

Since less software resides on the personal computer in a doctor's office, this software-as-a-service model can trim costs considerably and make technical support and maintenance easier.

eClinicalWorks will handle the installation, training and maintenance for the software, while Dell will be responsible for the installation of the computers. Wal-Mart is using its buying power for discounts on both the hardware and software.

Osborne said Wal-Mart's role is to put the bundle of technology into an affordable and accessible offering.

"We're the systems integrator, an aggregator," he added.

Wal-Mart has even tested the technology in its own health care clinics, staffed by third-party physicians and nurses. The company now has 30 such clinics in stores in eight states after integrating the clinics in 2006.

Osborne said those clinics are making good use of the technology the company will be offering physicians.

"That's where the learning came from, and they were the kernel of this idea," he added.


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