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  • Writer's pictureStephen Randall

What to make of Walmart’s and Optum’s Virtual Care exits?

Lessons from Web 1.0.





As reported by Heather Landi in Fierce Healthcare, Walmart and Optum stepping back from their virtual health services does not signal an end to the telehealth era, rather “the virtual care market is evolving and moving away from commoditized models.”


Reflecting on giants like Walmart and Optum stepping back from their virtual care services, it’s tempting to draw parallels with the early days of the internet - a period marked by a similar cycle of hype and disillusionment. In my opinion, this moment in digital health signals a pivot, reminiscent of the dot-com bubble.


When the internet was a relatively new animal in the late 1990s, many businesses that sprung to life did so with ambition and hope, but at times, shaky technology and business plans. And just like some virtual care pundits, many people heralded the end of the web when its bubble burst. Anyone remember Pets.com, Geocities or WebVan? But that era also saw companies like Amazon double down on the fundamentals of digital-first economies of scale. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

The virtual care market is evolving and moving away from commoditized models.

 

Many Web 1.0 companies failed because they overestimated immediate consumer adoption and underdeveloped their technological infrastructures. Likewise, Virtual Care 1.0 will not scale with an old mindset, or technology that has not been architected to compliment the multiple moving parts required for remote healthcare.


The fundamentals driving a vibrant virtual care market are here to stay; consumers’ adoption and expectation of digital-first experiences, over-burdened clinics, and depressingly poor access and affordability of basic healthcare services for many millions of people, especially in rural areas.


So what can we take away from Walmart’s and Optum’s exit from virtual care? If there is an echo of some of the missteps of early internet companies, perhaps their setbacks underline the critical need for a deeper technology integration between “bricks and clicks” such as advanced diagnostic tools and easier and faster integration.  


The virtual care market needs a technology-stack gluing healthcare services together such as Remote Patient Monitoring and telehealth with devices, tools and data in ways that are far easier and less expensive. And, just as e-commerce benefited from understanding consumer behaviors over time through data analytics, virtual care needs a strong foundation in longitudinal health data to offer truly impactful services. Such data will drive predictive analytics, enhance patient engagement, and enable more precise and preemptive care strategies, fundamentally transforming the virtual care paradigm. Real-time data from simple diagnostic tools can enhance virtual health, and mimic or even surpass face-to-face consultations and will not be a “nice-to-have” for Virtual Care 2.0, but a necessity.


The shuttering of health services by Walmart and Optum is part of a Darwinian evolution. Virtual Care 2.0 will transcend the limitations of basic video calls and integrate AI-driven diagnostics, real-time data analysis, and more personalized patient monitoring.



References and further reading:


1. How the virtual care market is shaking out in 2024 as Walmart, Optum exit the telehealth business: https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/health-tech/how-walmart-and-optum-exiting-telehealth-signals-major-shift-virtual-care-market

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