I, Rxobot: eRxCity places pharmacy technology front and center
Upon entering eRxCity on the second floor of a medical building at the corner of Mott and Canal streets in Chinatown in New York City, the store’s whole concept becomes clear from a slogan printed on the wall across from a flat-screen TV showing Hong Kong soap operas: “The next generation pharmacy.”
When the pharmacy’s founders, sisters Yvonne Tsang and Priscilla Cheung (née Tsang), opened the store earlier this year, they had come from far outside the pharmacy world. Yvonne had worked on Wall Street, while Priscilla had worked in information technology. In many ways, however, their being outsiders resulted in the approximately 4,000-sq.-ft. store’s unique concept, which required a larger space than could be found on the building’s first floor. “We just knew we didn’t want to be like the other stores,” Priscilla told Drug Store News. But in addition to its design, a major part of the store’s concept is its emphasis on technology.
Rather than placing the pharmacy counter in the back of the store, they placed it near the entrance and made it lower so that the pharmacy robot, provided by ScriptPro, could be right behind the counter rather than hidden in the back, and customers can get a peak at it on their way to the private consultation rooms. “It’s because we’re promoting the use of technology,” Priscilla said. “So why not showcase it?”
Being at the center of Chinatown, the pharmacy serves a predominantly Asian population, one disproportionately affected by diabetes, cholesterol and hepatitis. In addition to language barriers, many in the community are slower to embrace new technology, so the whole idea is to make customers more comfortable approaching the counter, using technology and talking to the pharmacists, who can speak English, Mandarin and Cantonese. “[The pharmacist] is there to help people, like a physician,” Priscilla said. Much of eRxCity’s concept is based on the idea that pharmacy is fundamentally a service industry, she said.
Like many pharmacies, eRxCity offers home delivery of medications, but it also has marshaled technology for this purpose. The staff that delivers the medications carries a mobile tracking device, similar to the ones used by FedEx and UPS package deliverers. Medications and the deliverer’s badge are scanned at the pharmacy and again upon delivery. Upon delivery, the device displays the HIPAA form for the patient — or someone acting on the patient’s behalf — to view and sign, thus allowing the pharmacy to keep track of the medication from the point of entry to the point of sale. “We focus a lot on the efficiency so that our staff can focus on servicing the customer,” Priscilla said.
“We’re a community pharmacy, but we want to operate the back end like a chain,” Yvonne added.
So far, there aren’t any definitive plans to expand — the store only opened in May — but it’s something both sisters see happening in the future, particularly in New York’s Chinese-speaking communities. “We call ourselves ‘The Next-Generation Pharmacy’ because we’re thinking ahead into the future, not just five years but 10 years,” Priscilla said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that both sisters were surnamed Cheung. Their maiden name is Tsang.
Tablets, mobile apps transform pharmacy
When someone says “pharmacy automation and technology,” the image that most likely springs to mind is a pharmacy robot dispensing pills in a bottle or pharmacists managing operations or looking at patients’ medical records and electronic prescriptions with the latest pharmacy software.
But technology increasingly is migrating out from behind the counter as pharmacy retailers wield it not just to make the jobs of pharmacists and pharmacy techs easier, but to enhance the experience of the customer as well.
And it’s migrating at just the right time. According to the wireless industry-lobbying group CTIA, 303 million Americans reported owning a mobile device, while more than a quarter (26.6%) have replaced their landlines with mobile phones. Meanwhile, 63.2 million Americans own a smartphone, including 50% of consumers ages 25 to 34 years, and 35% of smartphone owners have access to the Internet from their mobile devices, according to digital business analytics firm ComScore. According to Insight Express, 82% of consumers have used their mobile phones in a store, and 55% have used them in a doctor’s office or hospital.
In other words, within the U.S. population lies a huge market for apps to do everything from allowing pharmacy customers to manage their prescriptions and arrange medication refills online to allowing diabetes patients to use a mobile device to keep track of their blood-glucose data. Mobile health apps have grown in popularity so rapidly — there are more than 6,000 of them in Apple’s App Store, according to MobileHealthNews.com — that the Food and Drug Administration has considered guidelines affecting them.
While retailers have found numerous ways to connect with their customers through mobile apps outside the store, they have a number of tools at their disposal to connect with them in the store as well. One reason the death of Steve Jobs affected so many people was because under his leadership, Apple developed numerous technologies that didn’t just sell well, but also changed how people lived. Accordingly, the iPad has led to entire new ways for retailers to interact with customers.
“It’s infiltrating every aspect of retail, and as a result of that, tablets and store-level associates are just huge,” Greg Buzek, principal of retail technology consultancy IHL Group, told Drug Store News. “The applications that are available for the iPad for the medical world are just astounding.”
Other applications for before-the-counter technology are emerging as well. In September, Rite Aid teamed up with OptumHealth to become the first to provide “virtual clinics” in a retail pharmacy setting as part of a program in some of its stores in the Detroit area. Meanwhile, PharmaSmart has unveiled BPT-Rx, a new medication therapy management software that integrates into the pharmacy software system and links blood-pressure results from PharmaSmart monitors directly to an enrolled patient’s electronic profile.
When it launched its new Wellness store format earlier this year, Rite Aid introduced a number of innovative features, but one of the most prominent was “Wellness Ambassadors.” These ambassadors roam the store with iPads that provide access to a huge database of information about OTC medications, vitamins and supplements in order to assist customers in making decisions based on their symptoms and needs. Thus, they act as a bridge between the front end and the pharmacy, as president and CEO John Standley put it in an earnings call this summer.
Walgreens is arming its pharmacists with iPads and having them sit in an “information booth,” a desk area at the front of the store designed to provide customers with greater access to the pharmacist. The pilot program to put iPads in the hands of “health guides” was launched last month at 20 stores in Chicago. The idea is to expand the role of the pharmacists beyond adjudicating prescriptions and have them interact more with patients.
Max-Wellness has introduced a new One2One area, 1-of-2 Max-Answers information stations, which features a transportable “health tablet” that customers can use to access information on 275 common maladies. Max-Wellness president and CEO Michael Feuer told Drug Store News during a store tour in July that a customer could say something like “I played tennis last night, and my knee hurts,” and the tablet would help him or her identify solutions.
At the TEDMED conference in San Diego in October, Walgreens unveiled a host of new technologies designed to enhance the customer experience. Among these was “Refill By Scan,” a mobile app that allows patients to scan the bar code of a prescription and order refills in seconds, as well as other apps for Apple, Android and BlackBerry devices, such as refill reminder text alerts.
Jacksonville, Fla.-based supermarket chain Winn-Dixie has launched the Winn-Dixie pharmacy app for Apple, Android and BlackBerry smartphones and a mobile website, m.WinnDixieRx.com, operating on a secure network created by San Francisco-based Mscripts. The app allows customers to track prescription refill status and manage doctor and key health information. It also can locate the nearest Winn-Dixie pharmacy, in addition to offering services like interactive SMS messaging, mobile calendar integration and push notifications.
CVS Caremark has launched a new app for Android phones that provides users with Android OS version 2.1 or greater to access the Drug Information Database and learn about various prescription drugs, while allowing CVS Caremark plan members to log in and manage their prescriptions online. Other functions include refilling prescriptions, checking prescription order statuses, online new prescription requests and a pharmacy locator. The company has offered a version of the app for the iPhone since July 2010.
HealthPrize Technologies has launched a mobile app for the iPhone and Android that it calls the first to provide an integrated platform of creative rewards, games, education and competitions designed to combat medication nonadherence, a problem that costs the U.S. economy $290 billion every year. Rather than providing emails and texts, HealthPrize encourages adherence based on insights from behavioral economics, gaming dynamics and consumer marketing.
A new app for the iPhone allows users to keep track of their blood-sugar levels on a daily basis and over time. Glooko has launched the logbook app and MeterSync cable, which allow patients to automatically download data from their blood-glucose meters to their iPhones, add notes and send results to their healthcare providers. The cable costs $40 and works with popular blood-glucose monitors, such as Bayer’s Contour, FreeStyle Freedom Lite, FreeStyle Lite, OneTouch Ultra2, UltraLink and UltraMini.
GreatCall announced the launch of MedCoach, a medication management app that the company said would help customers better manage their overall well-being for free. Other features of the app include “Shake for Help,” which allows users to get help with a topic they’re reading by shaking the device, as well as 24-hour access to live personal assistance via email, secure storage of personal information and a medication look-up option that provides access to the First Databank national drug database.
Small formats promise easy access
Walmart’s first small-format Express stores have only been open about six months, but strong initial consumer acceptance, coupled with increasingly flexible real estate, points to the near certainty of an eventual rollout.
The stores range between 10,000 and 15,000 sq. ft., offer about 13,000 products and were developed so Walmart could tap potential growth opportunities in rural and urban markets. Walmart expects to end its current fiscal year in late January 2012 with 11 Walmart Express stores following the opening of the first units in northwest Arkansas.
“We are testing a lot of things in this box,” Pam Kohn, Walmart EVP merchandise services, told attendees recently at a Center for Retailing Excellence conference on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. “Some have pharmacies and some don’t, and some have gas and some don’t. We are really playing with this format. But our customer reaction initially is very, very positive, and we are excited about what this experiment is going to show us.”
Walmart’s small-format development initiatives, including Neighborhood Market, are under Kohn, who is in a relatively new role where she is responsible for centralizing merchandising shared service functions of merchandising execution, store layout, format, and space productivity and replenishment. She joined Walmart nearly a decade ago and early on, as SVP operations, she was responsible for Neighborhood Market before she was elevated to a series of operations and merchandising roles. Now it appears expansion of Walmart Express could happen on her watch.
“We are definitely in the pilot phase,” Kohn reminded attendees at the retail conference, before adding, “our next step will be to test a density pilot so we get more stores in a concentrated area so we can really understand the dynamics.” And those dynamics will be considerably different, as Walmart’s distribution network was built to serve really big stores where the sales velocities were such that they could accommodate large pack sizes and full pallets of goods.
“As we experiment with Walmart Express, and grow and expand more quickly with our Neighborhood Market, it poses a supply chain challenge that we don’t have a ton of experience with yet,” Kohn said. “Now we have to figure out how to do stuff a lot quicker, smaller and more frequently.”
While much of the retail industry is fixated on Walmart’s smallest prototype, of which between 15 and 20 additional units are slated to open in 2012, the more immediate opportunity rests with the medium-sized Neighborhood Market, where financial returns are said to be near those achieved by supercenters. In development for more than 13 years, Walmart in October finally allocated a larger percentage of its $6 billion to $6.5 billion U.S. capital budget to accelerate expansion of Neighborhood Market stores. “We’ve had five consecutive quarters of comp-store sales and traffic growth [with Neighborhood Market], and we are competing very, very well with our grocery competition,” Kohn said.
There currently are about 160 Neighborhood Market stores, but that figure could increase by as much as 50% next year as the plans call for between 65 and 80 of the approximately 40,000-sq.-ft. stores, according to Kohn.