Walgreens raises the bar in pharmacist-patient interaction

WHAT IT MEANS AND WHY IT'S IMPORTANT — If you want to change any kind of misguided perception that pharmacists are mere pill-counters and quality assurance specialists who stand behind a counter with a team of pharmacy technicians, then you've got to do something dramatic. Placing the pharmacist front and center in an "information booth" armed with a technophile-friendly iPad who is proactively interacting with patients — that's dramatic.

(THE NEWS: Report: Walgreens places pharmacists in the aisles armed with iPads. For the full story, click here)

This kind of evolution, however, can become a game changer across a couple of fronts. Sure, it raises awareness around the value a pharmacist already delivers to overall healthcare to the nth degree. But the possible utility doesn't end with easy Internet access to help answer health questions. The pharmacist can practically walk a patient through Walgreens' Web page and open their eyes to more services and programs offered by the retailer. Beyond that it has potential to enhance medication therapy management-style offerings — what if a pharmacist could pull up a patient's pharmacy profile and conduct a review on the spot?

And what possibilities does this open up for suppliers to help add value to this exchange?

Walgreens may not be the first pharmacy operator to raise awareness around just how accessible and informative a healthcare professional like the pharmacist can be by removing all barriers between them and their patient. It can be argued that small-box independents certainly have been up close and personal to their patients the longest, as attested to by the fact that independents always rank among the highest in customer service in J.D. Power's annual pharmacy satisfaction survey. And then there's Pharmaca, a slightly larger retail box that fields a whole host of healthcare professionals who actively interact with their guests.

But if Walgreens can expand such services as this chain wide, they'll certainly be the largest pharmacy operator to place a pharmacist "in the aisles" on any kind of consistent basis. With the cost of tablets coming down, that shouldn't be an inhibitor to blowing this out across more than 7,700 stores. That leaves the cost-prohibitive salary of the pharmacist — a professional who certainly makes a deal more than the average information booth clerk. But if Walgreens can quantify the return-on-investment — such as through substantial increases in patient retention, trips and marketbasket size or additional revenue streams, such as medication therapy management, then Walgreens will be well on its way to playing an even greater role in patient care than they already do.

The Internet-armed pharmacist is one of the healthcare innovations Walgreens showcased at the TEDMED conference in San Diego last month. Features of those stores include a pharmacist desk area in front of the pharmacy counter to provide greater customer access to the pharmacist; private and semi-private consultation rooms; an open and redesigned layout with expanded fresh food and beauty products, with more accessible shelving and checkout lines; and such technology as Walgreens Web Pickup, which allows customers to order online and pick up at the store and touchscreen kiosks that allow patients to quickly refill prescriptions.

“The concept is meant to create a pharmacy and health care ‘help desk’ where customers get solutions or referrals for their personal health questions,” Colin Watts, Walgreens chief innovation officer, told the Chicago daily.

The report identified the bigger picture behind the implementation of the "health guides." Beyond offering a greater level of personalized service, these guides help crystallize the role of the pharmacist beyond adjudicating prescriptions by increasing potential patient-pharmacist consultations.

A Chicago-based company, M-Healthcoach, won a competition against 24 other companies nationwide to develop the applications for Walgreens' health guide initiative.

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