Addressing concerns expressed by two U.S. senators, Rite Aid Corp. has clarified the role of its "wellness ambassadors," a key feature of the drug chain's new "wellness store" format.

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Senators ask about Rite Aid's 'wellness ambassador'

March 12th, 2012

NEW YORK – Addressing concerns expressed by two U.S. senators, Rite Aid Corp. has clarified the role of its "wellness ambassadors," a key feature of the drug chain's new "wellness store" format.

In press announcements late last week, Sens. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) and Richard Blumental (D., Conn.) questioned if Rite Aid was confusing customers with the wellness ambassadors. The senators said customers might mistake the ambassadors — who wear white coats — for a pharmacist and wondered if the ambassadors were making product recommendations or providing health advice or product information for which they lacked sufficient knowledge or training.

The Camp Hill, Pa.-based drug store chain, however, said the function of the ambassadors is presented clearly to customers and the ambassadors aren't portrayed as health care professionals.

"I am concerned that Rite Aid customers seeking a prescription or over-the-counter drugs are misled into believing the wellness ambassador is a pharmacist or health professional qualified to give medical advice," Blumenthal said in a statement. "This potential for confusion could have dramatic and dangerous consequences for consumers. People possibly posing as pharmacists wearing white coats in the pharmacy area could be making false and misleading claims about dietary supplements, which have not been reviewed by the FDA or approved to be marketed like drugs. The dangers are especially grave for vulnerable groups like seniors who may be more likely misled."

Blumenthal and Durbin on Thursday sent a letter to Rite Aid president and chief executive officer John Standley to express their concerns.

"It has come to our attention that Rite Aid is establishing 'wellness stations' within its stores, which are staffed by 'wellness ambassadors' who take health questions from customers and recommend dietary supplements to treat medical conditions," Durbin and Blumenthal wrote in the letter. "Because these wellness stations are located near the pharmacy, we are concerned that customers seeking medical assistance are misled to believe the station is affiliated with the pharmacy. The confusion is compounded by wellness ambassadors wearing white coats similar to those worn by pharmacists."

Rite Aid introduced the wellness ambassador last year with the debut of its wellness store concept, now at about 300 locations.

In discussing the new format and the ambassador role, Rite Aid executives have specified that the ambassador's job is to help customers find products and information and refer them to a pharmacist — not to dispense health advice or recommend products.

The ambassador carries an iPad and walks the aisles to greet customers and offer assistance. Shoppers also can talk to the ambassador at the wellness station, which has information on Rite Aid's services and houses a printer that can print coupons sent wirelessly from the iPad.

"To be clear, the role of the wellness ambassador stems from our commitment to customer service. They are there to enhance the customer experience, by greeting them and helping them locate a product, providing product information to customers and, most importantly, serving as a liaison to our pharmacists," Rite Aid said in a statement Friday. "Wellness ambassadors are clearly identified as such, with 'wellness ambassador' embroidered on their jacket as well as name badges. In most cases, their service station is conveniently located in the center of the store, so they can greet and assist customers and easily escort them to the pharmacy department, where they can speak with a licensed Rite Aid pharmacist."

The wellness ambassadors "do not take the place of our pharmacists," Rite Aid stressed in its statement.

"They do not advise or counsel patients, nor do they make any product or treatment recommendations," the company said of the ambassadors. "In fact, they are trained to bring patients who are seeking recommendations or those with questions to the pharmacist who can provide expert care, answer patient questions and even consult with the patients' primary care provider, if necessary."

Rite Aid said in its statement that the iPad carried by the ambassador provides a resource to customers seeking information on vitamins and supplements as well as the drug chain's programs and services.

"It's important to note that any customer who uses the iPad must first review and accept a disclaimer, which clearly states that the provided content is for educational purposes only and also directs customers to consult with their pharmacist or primary care provider before taking any products they are interested in," Rite Aid stated

Rite Aid added that it has received positive feedback about the ambassador from customers. "They've told us they value their interaction with the wellness ambassadors, which enhances the shopping experience and helps them achieve their wellness goals," the company said.

In their letter to Rite Aid, Durbin and Blumenthal asked for more information about the training of the wellness ambassadors, how the chain informs customers that the ambassadors aren't health professionals, how many Rite Aid stores have the ambassadors and wellness stations, and how many of the retailer's stores are slated to have the ambassadors and stations. The senators were particularly concerned about the marketing of dietary supplements.

"We are deeply concerned that wellness ambassadors could be making false and misleading claims by marketing dietary supplements as treatments for health conditions," they wrote in the letter. "The Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits marketing products through 'unfair or deceptive acts or practices,' such as making explicit or implied medical claims that a dietary supplement can treat, prevent, or cure a specific disease or condition. Because wellness ambassadors field questions from Rite Aid customers about treatments for symptoms and health conditions, we are troubled that customers could be directed to purchase dietary supplements."

Store associates at other drug chains serve in a concierge role similar to the wellness ambassador.

In the Chicago and Indianapolis markets, Walgreen Co. has been rolling out its "Well Experience" store format featuring the "health guide," who is equipped with an iPad and is available to field product and service questions and help customers navigate the store and their health care options as well as sign up for events. The guide is based at a desk, dubbed the health guide station, situated at the front of the pharmacy area.

Katz Group Canada's Rexall chain, meanwhile, offers the Healthy Living Advisor in its new Healthy Living Store format. Described as "a specially trained health and customer experience ambassador," the Healthy Living Advisor is based at the Healthy Living Advisor Station and is on hand to "help you with your healthy product selections," according to Rexall. The format also has the Rexall Healthy Living Patient Interactive Terminal, a touch-screen terminal providing health information ranging from general health topics to information on over-the-counter medications.

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