Matthew E. May, Special to Upstart Business Journal
November 15, 2012 | 3:12pm EST
Too often we overlook the power of small businesses to solve the world’s most wicked problems. Take the case of WellnessMart MD. This small business has successfully addressed some vexing areas of the national health care tangle.
I hadn’t heard of WellnessMart until a friend told me that I could get a body composition test for $10 there, instead of paying $75 at my doctor’s office. I could just walk in without an appointment, rather than waiting three weeks to see a doctor, and be done in less than five minutes.
WellnessMart is a refreshing concept: It’s a retail doctor’s office.
My friend didn’t exaggerate. Although I did spend well over an hour there, it was entirely by choice: I was talking to the founder, Dr. Richard McCauley, and my chat with him was fascinating. A graduate of USC Medical School, Richard was an emergency-room physician for several years before developing a new idea for health care.
WellnessMart looks nothing like a typical medical office. It has an attractive retail storefront, ample parking, and no waiting room. That’s because there’s no waiting. In fact, walking into a WellnessMart store feels like entering a hybrid of an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) store and a Kinko’s outlet. Picture white and lime-green walls, modern furnishings, an open floor plan, glossy floors, big-screen televisions, and walls covered with prominent menu boards listing services and cash pricing.
“I totally copied the Apple store concept,” McCauley confesses. And it turns out that he’s related to Kinko’s founder, business visionary Paul Orfalea—they’re cousins.
But what I found really intriguing was his business strategy: where in the market he had chosen to play and how he planned to win.
“There are two kinds of people,” states McCauley. “Healthy and sick. Why do sick people and healthy people go to the same place? Every other medical site treats both. We don’t. We only serve healthy people. It’s called ‘health care,’ not ‘sick care.’ Health care isn’t just for unhealthy times. There are so many routine-maintenance kinds of things you need from time to time. My sole goal in life is to make that quick, easy, and cheap.”
WellnessMart is a different and smarter way of doing some health-related things. At WellnessMart, people can get travel vaccines, cholesterol checks, or weight and nutrition consultations. McCauley can administer STD tests or cancer screens. You can buy physician-approved vitamins and take a few CPR classes.
It’s a study in what isn’t there, and the entire approach is one of simplicity and subtraction: no waiting, no appointments, no old magazines, no coughs and sniffles. “If you’re wheezing, sneezing, and coughing, you came to the wrong place,” says McCauley.
But WellnessMart can still help you if you’re sick. McCauley has compiled a directory for where to get the best price on health care services that WellnessMart doesn’t provide. You can look up where to go for doctor visits, X-rays, lab tests, dental work, and prescription drugs. They have books containing all the information spread out on a designated table, accessible to everyone.
McCauley said he got his idea while working as an ER doctor.
“I got really frustrated working on the front lines,” he tells me. “I was beginning to feel like I could never fix anything. As a physician, part of my job is to be a patient advocate within a very complex system that frustrates everybody involved. I wanted to go directly to the public—with a retail store.
“The idea was to create a medical marketplace with a certain level of transparency so people can see what things cost,” he says. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if health care was more like car care at your favorite local mechanic?”
So McCauley broke away. He started in the hallway of a large health club, testing his concept with his potential consumer base. “Where do you find a well-contained concentration of healthy people? In a gym working out,” he says.
His concept proved popular. In 2008, McCauley launched WellnessMart MD in a small strip mall in a suburb of Los Angeles. He now has two stores in northern California’s Sacramento area and another in West Los Angeles, for a total of four.
WellnessMart represents a profound improvement for consumers: a place they can walk in and get honest answers.
“Let’s live in the real world where people have limited resources. Not everybody can afford everything,” McCauley tells me. “If people can get the same quality care for less money, let’s start there and give people the opportunity to experience health care in a positive way. Then, let’s allow them to ask questions, to learn. Traditional medical offices are not set up to teach. They’re set up to diagnose and treat.”
That’s another cue McCauley took from an Apple Store, the notion of a “genius bar.” Each WellnessMart store has an educational area equipped with large screens and plenty of seating. Training classes regularly teach CPR, first aid, and child safety.
“Want to fix health care?” McCauley asks. “All you need is one sentence: ‘Health care service providers must openly post the price of every service on a menu.’ Problem solved, game over. We have to break with convention, and that’s how to do it. That’s how we did it.”
It’s in that last remark that I found the take-home lesson of WellnessMart MD: If you want real breakthroughs, you have to break away from conventional thinking.
Matthew E. May is author of the new book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, and founder of EDIT Innovation, a Los Angeles-based ideas agency.