Philanthropist Alice Walton discusses her interest in healthcare reform

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 4,392 views 

Alice Walton is spearheading several significant projects that could help advance healthcare in Northwest Arkansas as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art did for the arts and tourism. (Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.)

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened a decade ago, and the Bentonville museum’s impact on the region has been transformative.

Founded by philanthropist and Walmart heir Alice Walton, the daughter of founders Sam and Helen Walton, the museum represents an enormous cultural infrastructure investment, and a major expansion is now underway.

“In its first 10 years, Crystal Bridges has catalyzed economic development in Northwest Arkansas by transforming the region into a destination for tourism and enhancing the quality of life for our residents,” said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit that works — through collaboration — to improve the region’s quality of life in various areas. “The museum’s expansion will open opportunities for artists and creatives and provide access to more world-class art in our community.”

So what could Walton accomplish by pointing her energy and resources toward healthcare initiatives?

Check back in a decade or so, and we may have a more transparent view of Northwest Arkansas’ status as a destination for healthcare. But the ball is rolling.

Nearly two years ago, Walton announced a new nonprofit organization to make a transformative approach to health and well-being available to everyone. The Whole Health Institute is now under construction on the museum’s 120-acre grounds in Bentonville.

Earlier this year, Walton announced plans to build a new medical school in Bentonville to complement the institute. Whole Health School of Medicine and Health Sciences will break ground in 2022. The first students will begin classes in 2024 and will graduate in 2028.

Also, this year, the Alice L. Walton Foundation and Cleveland Clinic announced a joint initiative to identify ways of providing access to Cleveland Clinic’s renowned specialty care services in Northwest Arkansas.

Those are significant projects that could help advance healthcare in Northwest Arkansas as Crystal Bridges did for the arts. In this written Q&A, Walton shares some of her thoughts about those projects and her interest in healthcare reform.

What from your previous experience, professionally and/or personally, formed the way you think about healthcare? Specifically, whole health? Why is this your “new” focus? Do you feel it’s a calling?

Like many others, I’ve had healthcare experiences over the years ranging from routine doctor’s visits to surgeries. In those experiences, I’ve seen the need for better processes and health outcomes. My best experiences have been ones that focus on me as a whole person, my physical, mental and spiritual health.

As to why I’m focusing on whole health, I feel that I have the ability to help address this issue. I’ve personally seen how integrating the arts and nature into my own habits of caring for myself have had a positive impact on my overall health and well-being. I believe I can help provide access to resources and experiences that can be transformative for individuals and communities.

The concept of Whole Health Institute was also driven by research revealing the United States has the highest level of healthcare spending worldwide and relatively low rankings in overall health. The pandemic further highlighted inequalities, mental health issues, and the need for a whole-person approach to healthcare — it also revealed the power of communities and workplaces to be a force for change.

What problem does the Whole Health Institute address? What will it provide that is missing from the American healthcare landscape?

Currently, there is not a whole person approach to healthcare, which can result in a lack of self-care, fragmented health systems, inequitable health education and policy, unhealthy workplaces, and disconnected communities. Essentially, we have a health industry that does not produce healthy outcomes because we do not have a system that addresses behavior change.

Whole Health Institute aims to radically redesign healthcare by empowering individuals to take charge of their physical, mental, and spiritual health so they can live full and meaningful lives. The vision of Whole Health is to transform the healthcare landscape by equipping individuals, providers, employers, and health systems with the tools to offer a whole health approach to care, ultimately decreasing clinical needs, healthcare costs, and chronic conditions.

Can you provide any examples of how WHI’s approach to healthcare will be different or unique?

A whole health approach starts with “what matters most” as opposed to “what’s the matter?” Many people associate health with issues or problems. Whole Health Institute explores an individual’s aspirations and purpose, empowers them to focus on their own goals and values and leads to better health outcomes.

This model has been proven to work. There’s strong research from the Veterans Administration (VA), where over 350,000 veterans and staff had whole health training. A three-year study showed significant benefits with a reduction of opioid use, increased patient engagement, decreased employee burnout and resignations, and a 30% decline in healthcare costs relative to the general population.

We’re also focused on breaking down barriers to whole health within the medical field. One example is the current payment structure. The fee-for-service model pays doctors for each service, thus creating a reward for number of visits, not for healthy outcomes. Whole Health Institute is working with payors, providers, and policymakers to transform to a value-based payment system that incentivizes healthy behaviors and improves wellness through a whole health approach.

How transformative can WHI be to the region, and to Arkansas? And not just WHI, but the medical school as well? Can Northwest Arkansas become a nationally known medical center?

I believe we have a huge opportunity to be a catalyst for change, with Northwest Arkansas at the epicenter of a grassroots whole health movement. The Institute is working closely with professionals in our region, convening and connecting partners in the whole health space, training individuals who can then train others, and serving as a resource for life-long education.

Whole Health’s sister organization, Whole Health School of Medicine and Health Sciences, will be a degree-granting nonprofit school. The medical school will help students rise to the health challenges of the 21st century through a reimagination of American medical education that incorporates whole health to help people live healthier and happier lives. The curriculum will combine traditional and conventional medicine with integrative techniques based on whole health principles.

I know you want and have a strong commitment to make Whole Health accessible and affordable to all people in every community. For people ready to try this out, is it as simple as making an appointment at the institute? Similar to a “doctor’s” appointment?

The Whole Health Institute doesn’t function as a doctor’s office. Rather, we offer resources for individuals and work directly with health professionals, medical systems, business and community leaders, and others to integrate a whole health approach.

For someone who is interested in exploring how a whole health approach can transform their life, we encourage taking an Introduction to Whole Health or Taking Charge course, which are both free at wholehealth.org. There are also self-reflection tools, videos and more materials as well as classes specifically designed for clinicians, kids, and others located on the resource page. Currently, most of the offerings are virtual and once the building opens in 2023, more classes or other in-person experiences will be available onsite.

Construction of the institute is underway now near the museum entrance in Bentonville. Any update on a site for where the medical school will be built?

We have broken ground on the new building which will be located on the campus of Crystal Bridges. Much of the site work is done and major construction will be starting soon with the goal of completing in 2023. As I mentioned, the new space will allow us to have more in-person experiences, and also to encourage visitors to take charge of their well-being while surrounded by nature, art, and wellness. As to the medical school, it will be in Bentonville at a location to be determined.

Earlier this year the Alice L. Walton Foundation and Cleveland Clinic announced a joint initiative to identify ways of providing access to Cleveland Clinic’s renowned specialty care services in Northwest Arkansas. Wouldn’t the easiest way to do that be to build a Cleveland Clinic in Northwest Arkansas? Can you address that theory or discuss how feasible that is during the next decade?

Our initiative is currently in an assessment phase — we’re evaluating our region’s specialty care needs, and then we’ll determine how we can best meet those needs. It’s premature to offer any opinions on how to provide services until the assessments are complete.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t get your thoughts on the 10th anniversary of Crystal Bridges (officially Nov. 11, 2021). Looking back on the first day the museum opened 10 years ago, what do you remember most about that day and how do you feel about where the museum is today?

What I remember most about 11/11/11 is how many people wanted to visit Crystal Bridges and how excited and happy they were. That was a dream come true for me, to be able to open the doors and have our community so eager and enthusiastic to see the building and to enjoy the art collection.

That joy has continued over the past decade, as we’ve welcomed millions and millions of visitors, and forged strong connections with our community. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to know that I’ve been able to make art and architecture more accessible to people, with the beauty of our natural setting as a part of their experience.

How do you describe the museum’s impact on Bentonville the past decade?

By the end of our first year, attendance exceeded 600,000 — more than double our projection of about 250,000. Since opening, 5.6 million people have visited from every state in the country and all across the world. In addition, some 4 million people have biked, walked, or enjoyed the trails around the museum. Crystal Bridges has doubled the size of the collection since opening (currently 3,500 objects) with a focus on diversity of voices and objects that tell a broad story of American art.

To me, the experiences that people have at the museum are what’s most meaningful. You can see works of art by artists from every walk of life, perhaps find an artwork that speaks to you, that intrigues you. How might that help you look at the world a little differently? A little more empathetically? Could the faces on the walls and the artist’s stories help you feel a sense of community and belonging? Those are the victories, the experiences that might help build understanding, offer respite, or provide inspiration.

The museum is in the preliminary phase of increasing its size by 50% to showcase the museum’s growing collection and welcome more visitors. What impact will that have on Bentonville during the next decade?

As Northwest Arkansas grows and increases access to quality-of-life amenities, we are excited to activate the building and grounds in new ways. An additional 100,000 square feet of space will allow more visitors to access even more art and educational experiences with a 65% increase in gallery space. Courtyards and terraces that link the galleries and program spaces to the surrounding grounds and trails.

There will be more educational spaces, community gathering areas, art studios, and maker spaces for creators of all ages and abilities. Construction will start in early 2022 with the goal of completing in 2024.

As to impact, it gives us the ability to welcome more people and to provide an even wider range of offerings than we do currently.