In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Pritesh Gandhi talks about addressing the social drivers of health at a large scale.
Pritesh Gandhi possesses plenty of experience leading healthcare operations at a large scale.
For more than two years, Gandhi served as chief medical officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in President Biden’s administration. He advised homeland security leadership on a wide range of health issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, migrants at the southern border, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the fall of Afghanistan, Mpox, and more.
Now, Gandhi brings that experience to a key role in Walmart’s move into healthcare. In January, he became the retail giant’s chief community health officer. Walmart has been expanding its healthcare services, with plans to open more health clinics over the next year.
In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive®, Gandhi made it clear that he relishes his new role.
“It is a fascinating opportunity to join Walmart,” Gandhi says.
“Part of the draw to come into Walmart is and, and continues to be, the opportunity to work at scale around the country, to move the needle on community health outcomes,” he says.
Gandhi says he sees opportunities to improve health equity and make care more accessible and convenient for consumers.
“We are a decade into this journey, where we realize that health isn't just what happens inside the clinic walls, but health is everything inside the clinic walls, outside the clinic walls, in our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities,” Gandhi says. “And this opportunity to link what happens in our homes and in our neighborhoods, in our communities, with the care that we receive in our health centers, with all of the activities that happen in between, that's a real opportunity to make change.”
Walmart is one of a host of retailers making bigger moves in healthcare. Earlier this year Amazon completed its $3.9 billion acquisition of One Medical, which offers primary care and virtual care. CVS Health announced in February that it is buying Oak Street Health in a $10.6 billion deal. VillageMD, backed by Walgreens Boots Alliance, purchased Summit Health-CityMD in a $8.9 billion deal in October.
Given Walmart’s reach, Gandhi says he’s optimistic the retailer will have an impact on care, and close disparities in underserved rural and urban communities. He says his new role offers “a chance to do good.”
“What a responsibility and an opportunity here,” Gandhi says.
(See part of our conversation with Pritesh Gandhi. The story continues below.)
A charge to ‘think critically’
Gandhi has spent much of his career working to offer healthcare to those in underserved communities. For more than five years, he served as associate chief medical officer of the People’s Community Clinic, a Federally Qualified Health Center in Austin, Texas.
“Federally Qualified Health Centers really are the backstop of healthcare in this country,” he says.
As chief medical officer at the homeland security department, Gandhi found rewards in the work, but his role meant that he didn’t sleep much for two years. He called it “an incredible couple of years to lead that work for this country.”
“You wake up and go to bed with the North Star of keeping the American people safe and keeping our homeland safe and secure,” Gandhi says. “And you have to ensure that every operation, process and pathway is like a well-oiled machine.”
The only other company that works at the scale of the federal government, in terms of its brick-and-mortar presence, is Walmart, he says. While Walmart obviously has different objectives than the Department of Homeland Security, Gandhi says his approach to his post at Walmart is fairly similar.
“A lot of the day-to-day processes that we had to execute at homeland security, I've taken and brought over into how I think and conceptualize this role here at Walmart,” Gandhi says.
He says his role is to develop ways to provide healthcare differently and more comprehensively.
“This job has that charge to think critically, around whole health programs, to be deliberate and forward-leaning as it relates to how we think around community health service lines,” Gandhi says. “And to build a case that is self-sustaining and scalable, for how we do health and moving forward, really how we redefine health. And so that's the opportunity at play here.”
Walmart’s reach is undeniable. About 90% of the American population lives within 10 miles of a Walmart store, Gandhi notes.
“If you just take a second and absorb what that means, it means that Walmart has a community infrastructure in place that can make a meaningful impact on core social drivers of health,” he says.
Adding health centers
Walmart’s national presence already includes 4,800 pharmacies and about 3,000 vision centers. But the company is expanding its healthcare footprint.
Walmart operates more than 40 Walmart Health Centers, and expects to operate more than 75 locations around the country by the end of 2024.
Walmart plans to open health clinics in two new states - Arizona and Missouri - while expanding its presence in Texas, including 10 new clinics in Dallas and eight in Houston. Walmart currently operates health clinics in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Illinois and Arkansas.
Eventually, Gandhi sees Walmart establishing more health clinics in other markets.
“You've seen a fairly deliberate process by which we're expanding our healthcare centers,” Gandhi says. “And as we continue to drive volume through those health care centers, you're going to see Walmart defining a new health care model.”
The clinics offer primary care and other healthcare services, including behavioral health, X-rays and laboratory service, dental care and telehealth (services vary at some locations).
Gandhi says the health centers have enjoyed high marks from patients, with surveys showing that 96% of patients said they felt cared for and that the centers met their needs.
“I mean, that is an extraordinarily high percentage of patients that felt cared for coming through our healthcare facilities,” he says. “And it's because the customer’s always first at Walmart. The customer’s always first in our retail stores. The customer is always first in our health center sites. The customer is always first on our telehealth visits. The customer is always first when we're thinking about our health programs.”
“And when you put the needs of our customers first and when you put the needs of our associates as high as the needs of our customers, it creates this environment where people genuinely feel that we have their best interests at heart, because we do,” he adds.
In addition to offering more primary care services, Walmart can help chip away at problems such as food insecurity.
“We are facing, I think, historic challenges as it relates to chronic disease, and we know the linkage between health and our diet,” Gandhi says. “And we see this as an opportunity to extend our commitment to our consumers, again, past the brick-and-mortar facilities into how people view their health. And so, again, we've got an opportunity here, as relates to nutrition and so many other social drivers.”
Gandhi says the centers have the potential to offer more than meeting the immediate health needs of patients.
“That's the opportunity in front of us in our health centers,” Gandhi says. “They're really comprehensive care facilities that certainly practice the brick-and-mortar healthcare at a high standard, but are putting in place capabilities to extend far beyond the four walls of a clinic.”