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Virtual health care at the forefront of Pharmacy 2.0

BY Alaric DeArment

Technology in retail pharmacies has traditionally 
meant the adoption of robotic dispensing systems and electronic health records, but in recent years, pharmacy retailers have been bringing technology to the consumer level.


In September, Rite Aid teamed up with OptumHealth to become the first to provide “virtual clinics” in a retail pharmacy setting in some stores in the Detroit area.


NowClinic allows customers at stores to interact in real time with doctors and OptumHealth nurses, using the Internet to have private consultations with doctors about symptoms and obtaining guidance, diagnoses and even prescriptions for some medications. Customers also can have conversations with nurses, who can provide basic healthcare education, information on common medical problems and identification of appropriate provider options for care. Afterward, customers can obtain a record of each interaction.


Online virtual doctor visits have been around for some time. Zipnosis.com, for example, allows patients to log onto the site, answer the same questions a healthcare provider would ask a patient and, once the evaluation is complete, receive a response from a physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant. 


Depending on the condition and the interview, a patient can receive anything from advice to a referral or even an electronic prescription. Zipnosis plans to expand to 10 states by the end of this year.


What makes Rite Aid’s collaboration with OptumHealth significant is that it brings these services into the store, giving the patient immediate access to the pharmacy, offering access to expertise from physicians, nurses and pharmacists — without the need to have the former two physically present in the store — and, if patients receive prescriptions, it offers the convenience of the pharmacy literally just a few steps away.


The “virtual clinic” services echo services already offered at Rite Aid’s Wellness stores, where patients can visit a private consultation room and interact via webcam with pharmacists who specialize in medication therapy management and various disease states. 


But Pharmacy 2.0 is by no means the sole preserve of Rite Aid. Walgreens also has launched an initiative designed to enhance its technology infrastructure, including a scalable healthcare platform that will use new technology to support its goal of becoming a destination for health and daily living. Recently, the chain found itself in 29th place of the InformationWeek 500 list of the top technology innovators in the country, being the highest-ranking company in the retail and general merchandising category. 


One company that brings pharmacy technology to the customer in a big way is PharmaSmart, which introduced its BPT-Rx medication therapy management software in August. The software integrates into the pharmacy software system and links blood-pressure results collected from PharmaSmart monitors directly to an enrolled patient’s electronic profile.


The efforts of Rite Aid and Walgreens, and the products and services of companies like PharmaSmart, are helping to transform pharmacy from the place to get medicines to a one-stop destination for health care.

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DSN guest moderates Congressional briefing

BY Rob Eder

WASHINGTON — The Drug Store News Group editor Rob Eder moderated a special Congressional briefing hosted by the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists on Sept. 27 for U.S. House of Representatives staffers.


Eder, who presented on current retail trends in homeopathic remedy sales, Americans’ growing interest in self-care and implications for U.S. health care, also moderated a panel discussion of experts, including AAHP president Mark Land and legal counsel Al Lorman, as well as Wayne Jonas, president and CEO of 
Samueli Institute.


Citing data from SPINS/Nielsen, Eder noted that sales for homeopathic remedies across food, drug and mass (excluding Walmart) and natural supermarkets (excluding Whole Foods) reached more than $173 million, up more than 15% for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 6. 


Land, who also is VP operations and regulatory affairs for homeopathic remedy maker Boiron, talked about the origins of homeopathic medicine in America, and underlying industry economics. Lorman followed with a discussion of the regulatory environment for homeopathic medicines.


Jonas — whose resume includes the National Institutes of Health, the Walter Reed Institute and the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy — talked about leading research that has been compiled on the safety and efficacy of homeopathic remedies.

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Heavy 
hITters

BY Tim Craig

How many times have we heard it said that one day in America there will be a nationwide health information network that will link patients, providers and payers seamlessly, efficiently and securely, across a universal standardized system? It’s been the dream of health information technology strategists and engineers for decades. And yet, when you take a look at the healthcare experience of the typical American consumer, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence that we are any closer to achieving that dream today than we were in the days of the Carter administration.


Fortunately, what most American consumers are experiencing on the surface of the system is not an accurate reflection of the changes taking place at its core — changes that finally and genuinely can be characterized as revolutionary, not just evolutionary. 


While most would agree that the U.S. healthcare system has a long way to go before anyone, anywhere should start claiming victory, the current generation of changes — spurred on most notably by provisions set forth in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, as well as in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 — are anything but the shallow platitudes of the past.


Together, these two acts of Congress — despite what one thinks of their overall effect on the healthcare system — have created the funding mechanisms for the infusion of tens of billions of public dollars, through grants and incentives, into the health IT sector. This, in turn, has attracted hundreds of millions in venture capital investments, and together they have turned health IT into one of the standout success stories in an otherwise listless economy.


According to Dow Jones VentureSource, healthcare services in particular have seen the strongest growth, with 54 healthcare services companies raising more than $1.2 billion in private investment in 2010, more than triple the capital raised by this sector in the previous 12 months. There’s good reason for this sudden rush of activity, too. Not only is health IT at the crossroads of two of the fastest-growing, most important global industries, but much of the money tied to the influx of government grants and incentives — which represents the lion’s share of the overall dollars being invested in health IT — will be paid out over the next fives years, with the largest amounts being paid out in 2011 and 2012, in line with the time lines spelled out in the PPACA and ARRA.


In addition to strictly defined time lines, the healthcare-reform acts that are driving change in today’s market are doing so because they draw very clear distinctions about the areas of IT innovation the healthcare sector needs most, including secure infrastructure, electronic data exchange and electronic health records, to name just a few.


But the ARRA goes one step further; it identifies actual technologies — including a particularly heavy emphasis on e-prescribing — that physicians and providers must employ in order to demonstrate that their adoption of electronic records and networks is not a one-time passive investment. In short, before doling out billions in HIT grants, the government built in a proof-of-use clause to the ARRA (known as the “Meaningful Use” incentive) to ensure providers are both building and using new technologies.


The effect that this meaningful use clause has had on the pharmacy sector cannot be overstated. It has thrust e-prescribing into the forefront of health IT and has served as a galvanizing event for just about every company throughout the pharmacy services sector. Today, there are quite literally hundreds of companies vying for a piece of this market — many driven by the lure of the federal stimulus package. And, collectively, they are starting to move the needle. According to the National Progress Report on E-Prescribing and Interoperable Healthcare, the percentage of electronic prescriptions has risen in the United States from 4% in 2008 to more than 25% at the end of 2010.


But federal dollars aren’t the only attraction in town — not by a long shot. The momentum in health IT has garnered serious attention from the private sector, too. Take Morgenthaler, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif. This past summer it held a nationwide contest to find the most promising health IT start-ups looking for seed and Series-A funding. By the time it was ready to announce its finalists, the Morgenthaler contest alone — a relatively small, invitation-only venue — had reviewed 117 candidates, each with its own application or service for a Web, mobile, social media or cloud-based solution designed to transform our healthcare system.


Now multiply the Morgenthaler example by the hundreds of like-minded initiatives taking place across the country, from private contests to state-run RFPs, and it’s easy to see how health IT has moved to the forefront of innovation. It’s no wonder Morgenthaler called health IT “as sexy an (investment) sector as social media and games.”


From sexy to utilitarian, the innovators and innovations driving health IT — particularly pharmacy services — are anything but ordinary. Whether they have 25 years of experience in pharmacy services or 25 weeks, they’re all driven by the same objective of creating a technology solution to help bring the industry to its long-held goal of creating an efficient and secure network that seamlessly will link patients, providers and payers.

Click here to download the full Heavy hITters report.

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