Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, is worried that too many of its workers are having health conditions misdiagnosed, leading to unnecessary surgery and wasted health spending.
The issue crystallized for Walmart officials when they discovered about half of the company’s workers who went to the Mayo Clinic and other specialized hospitals for back surgery in the past few years turned out to not need those operations. They were either misdiagnosed by their doctor or needed only nonsurgical treatment.
A key issue: Their diagnostic imaging, such as CT scans and MRIs, had high error rates, said Lisa Woods, senior director of benefits design for Walmart.
So the company, whose health plans cover 1.1 million U.S. employees and dependents, has recommended that workers use one of 800 imaging centers identified as providing high-quality care. That list was developed for Walmart by Covera Health, a New York City–based health analytics company that uses data to help spot facilities likely to provide accurate imaging for a wide variety of conditions, from cancer to torn knee ligaments.
Although Walmart and other large employers in recent years have been steering workers to medical centers with proven track records for specific procedures such as transplants, the retail giant is believed to be the first to prod workers to use specific imaging providers based on diagnostic accuracy – not price, said employer health experts.
“A quality MRI or CT scan can improve the accuracy of diagnoses early in the care journey, helping create the correct treatment plan with the best opportunity for recovery,” said Ms. Woods. “The goal is to give associates the best chance to get better, and that starts with the right diagnosis.”
Walmart employees are not required to use those 800 centers, but if they don’t use one that is available near them, they will have to pay additional cost sharing. Company officials advise workers that they could have more accurate results if they opt for the specified centers.
Studies show aeach workday in a typical radiology practice, but some academic research has found mistakes on advanced images such as CT scans and MRIs can reach up to 30% of diagnoses. Although not every mistake affects patient care, with millions of CT scans and MRIs done each year in the United States, such mistakes can have a significant impact.
“There’s no question that there are a lot of errors that occur,” said, chair of radiology at the Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia.
Errors at imaging centers can happen for many reasons, including the radiologist not devoting enough time to reading each image, Dr. Rao said. The average radiologist typically has only seconds to read each image. “It’s just a lot of data that crosses your eye and there is human fatigue, interruptions, and errors are bound to happen,” she added.
Other pitfalls: the technician not positioning the patient correctly in the imaging machine or a radiologist not having sufficient expertise or experience, Dr. Rao said.
Employers and insurers typically do little to help patients identify which radiology practices provide the most accurate results. Instead, employers have been focused on the cost of imaging tests. Some employers or insurers require plan membersrather than those based in hospitals, which tend to be more expensive.
Ms. Woods said Walmart found that deficiencies and variation in imaging services affected employees nationwide. “Unfortunately, it is all over the country. It’s everywhere,” she said.
Walmart’s new imaging strategy is aligned with its efforts over the past decade tofor high-cost health procedures. Since 2013, Walmart has been sending workers and their dependents to select hospitals across the country where it believes they can get better results for spine surgery, heart surgery, joint replacement, weight loss surgery, transplants, and certain cancers.
As part of its “Centers of Excellence” program, the Bentonville, Ark.–based retail giant picks up the tab for the surgeries and all related travel expenses for patients on the company’s health insurance plan, including a caregiver.