by Thomas Wailgum

Wal-Mart: Rolling Back Prices on Systems Integration for Your Family Doctor

Mar 11, 20093 mins
Enterprise Applications

Wal-Mart’s IT group has been known for a lot of things over the years: supply chain excellence and arrogance, bullying its suppliers, leading-edge technology adoption, mistrust of ERP and off-the-shelf retail BI applications, and producing high-profile IT leaders.

Now Wal-Mart wants to be known as a systems integrator for your local doctor.

Wal-Mart is making a move into the electronic health records market, “seeking to bring the technology into the mainstream for physicians in small offices, where most of America’s doctors practice medicine,” reports The New York Times today.

Wal-Mart Sign HQ

To say that Wal-Mart is tackling one complicated and controversial issue with electronic health records is an understatement. Even medical industry gurus who’ve worked enthusiastically on this topic for years agree, there are still huge hurdles to making health records electronic. Even successful pilot projects at top hospitals like New York’s Mt. Sinai that bite off just a chunk of the problem have yet to be replicated on any kind of wide scale.

And small to medium-sized medical offices, the market Wal-Mart intends to target, have the least money and staff to deal with IT projects related to medical records.

While Wal-Mart is clearly the big name in the announcement, there is a partnership of entities in the deal: Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club division will team with Dell (for computers) and eClinicalWorks, a fast-growing private company, for software, according the Times article. “Wal-Mart says its package deal of hardware, software, installation, maintenance and training will make the technology more accessible and affordable,” notes the article, “undercutting rival health information technology suppliers by as much as half.”

As to what role Wal-Mart itself (and, the thinking goes, its IT department) will play, that seems less than crystal clear now. According to Marcus Osborne, senior director for health care business development at Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer’s role is to put the bundle of technology into an affordable and accessible offering, he told the Times. “We’re the systems integrator, an aggregator,” Osborne added.

Wal-Mart’s CIOs and IT department has a long history of thrusting technology transformation upon itself and its suppliers. It also has courted its share of health-care controversy over the years.

Curiously, last month I noted that Wal-Mart was reportedly evaluating a business process outsourcing (BPO) contract in India. I wrote that these outsourcing tasks, such as procurement, merchandising and payroll, would be a stunning new chapter in Wal-Mart’s IT story. (A Wal-Mart spokesman still denies the story that was originally reported in The Economic Times.)

So will “The Wal-Mart Way” do consumers any good with one of the United States’ most pressing, complex and sensitive issues: health-care reform in medical records? If past performance is any predictor of future results, Wal-Mart will relentlessly press forward with its business plans—for better or worse, and in sickness and health.