I have worked as an optometric physician in Oklahoma for 15 years and have seen more than 10,000 patients in Oklahoma City, Edmond, and Midwest City. In addition to fitting patients with contacts and prescription eyeglasses, I diagnose and treat debilitating conditions like glaucoma, macular degeneration, and ocular surface disease; I perform both traditional and laser surgeries; and I advise patients whose eyes show signs that they are at risk of a stroke or a heart attack. I have diagnosed patients and saved lives with vision and life-threatening conditions like brain tumors, brain aneurysms, and different types of cancers.
Today, my profession and most importantly, the health of my patients, is being directly attacked by Walmart.
Under the guise of “market competition,” Walmart wants to change Oklahoma’s constitution to eliminate the legal barriers between medicine and retail sales. In other words, they want optometric physicians like me to work in a Walmart store and practice medicine somewhere between the frozen food section and their auto-parts shop.
Our state constitution currently prohibits such a setup, a choice that Oklahoma lawmakers consciously and wisely made (and have since reaffirmed) to treat medical care as something other than a normal mass market retail product.
There are two important reasons for that degree of separation. The first is quality.
I work in a private practice and my only business is optometry. My clinic is a sterile environment. I have the tools and the equipment I need to provide my patients with the best service and care available; I am not assigned a budget by a Walmart manager or asked to cut corners. I know my patients by name, and I know their families. I have every incentive to offer the highest quality of care.
Walmart, I think it is fair to say, does not specialize in providing high-quality goods and services. It is known for bulk sales and cheap products. That is fine if you are buying a garden hose; it is not fine if you are getting laser eye surgery.
Other than guaranteeing quality of care, another reason for separating medicine from big-box store environments is trust.
If a doctor tells patients they need a procedure or a new prescription, the patients need to they are receiving advice based on sound medicine and nothing else. I took an oath when I graduated from optometry school to “First, Do No Harm.” In other words, patients need to know they are dealing with a doctor who is committed to taking care of them for life and not a salesperson looking to meet a quarterly quota.
Big-box stores rely on bulk sales – the fast and dirty work of selling as much stuff as possible to as many people as possible. In states where Walmart contractors can practice optometry that approach has trickled down to eye doctors: There are numerous examples of optometrists who are pressured to change how they practice medicine to increase sales. That may be good business for Walmart; it is most certainly bad medicine.
Quality care and trust are the bedrock principles that all doctors operate on and all patients demand. Sadly, both are being torn down and commoditized by Walmart and being replaced with just one: profit.
Selina McGee is a doctor of optometry who lives and practices in Edmond, Oklahoma. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry and a Diplomate of the American Board of Optometry.
This article originally appeared in the Journal Record.