Drug stores raised their public visibility as health care providers big-time in 2009 with aggressive flu shot programs. This year, they're angling to go a step further.

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Drug stores aim to be top-of-mind with flu shots

August 20th, 2010

NEW YORK – Drug stores raised their public visibility as health care providers big-time in 2009 with aggressive flu shot programs. This year, they're angling to go a step further.

The American Pharmacists Association (APhA) this week urged consumers to go to their local pharmacy as the site to receive their vaccine for the upcoming flu season.

What's more, the nation's three largest drug chains — Walgreens, CVS Caremark and Rite Aid — and other pharmacy operators plan expanded flu vaccination programs for the 2010-11 flu season and are getting the word out even earlier than last year.

One industry analyst, in fact, described the "early and aggressive" flu shot campaigns as a move by drug retailers to snare a bigger share of the market for primary health care services — an area that is drawing increase attention with the advent of health care reform and the more than 30 million new Americans slated to gain health insurance coverage.

"We view this initiative by the drug retailers as further evidence of the channel's opportunity to develop the 'adjacent space' to primary care," William Blair & Co. analyst Mark Miller wrote in a research note released Tuesday.

"While some have questioned the wisdom of an aggressive flu shot campaign now that the H1N1 flu pandemic is over," Miller explained, "the drug retailers are not necessarily counting on growth in the market as much as the opportunity to take share from less-convenient doctors' offices, which administer the vast majority of flu shots in the United States each year."

In his report, Miller said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that retail pharmacies administered roughly 22 million, or 12%, of the 110 million seasonal flu vaccines and 70 million H1N1 flu shots given last year and that it projects 150 million to 180 million Americans overall to get a flu shot this year, when just one shot will be needed for protection against two seasonal flu viruses and the 2009 H1N1 virus.

In its clarion call to consumers, the APhA noted that drug stores provide perhaps the most convenient outlet to get inoculated, since more than 120,000 pharmacists in all 50 states and the District of Columbia (as of June 30) are trained to administer flu immunizations.

"The pharmacist is the public's most accessible health care provider, and they play an important role on the health care team in protecting their communities from the spread of disease," Thomas Menighan, chief executive officer and executive vice president of the APhA, said in a statement.

Menighan also highlighted pharmacists as a go-to source for flu season concerns and other health care advice. "Visit your local pharmacy to get immunized and hold an open discussion with your pharmacist about any questions or concerns you may have regarding the upcoming influenza season or other vaccine preventable diseases," he commented.

The association, too, pointed out that many drug stores offer a range of other immunizations, including pneumococcal (pneumonia), meningococcal (meningitis), hepatitis B, human papillomavirus (HPV), Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) and shingles.

"APhA encourages consumers to be proactive and talk to their pharmacists about their vaccination needs and the immunization process at that pharmacy," the association stated.

Part of the reason for early and aggressive flu vaccination programs is that this year the CDC has broadened the target population for flu shots to people 6 months of age or older. Also, the single-dose vaccine makes getting flu immunizations more convenient.

At CVS Caremark, preparations for the flu season began late last month when signs went up at all CVS/pharmacy stores and MinuteClinics reminding consumers that an "all-in-one" shot will be available this year. CVS has more than 7,000 drug stores nationwide and about 500 MinuteClinics.

The company reported that a recent survey of more than 3,100 consumers by CVS/pharmacy found that 59% of respondents are likely to get a flu shot in 2010, and 37% of those who didn't get one last year are more likely to get one this year.

Rite Aid launched its flu shot program on Thursday, making seasonal flu vaccinations available at more than 3,000 of its pharmacy locations nationwide. The chain, which earlier this month began accepting advance reservations for flu shots, said it has more than 7,000 immunizing pharmacists. More than 800 flu shot clinics also are planned this fall. The retailer, too, is offering a coupon booklet with discounts on health and wellness, beauty, household and other products to anyone who gets a flu immunization.

And on Tuesday, Walgreens kicked off what it called the most comprehensive flu shot program in the country. The chain said this year it's serving up "unprecedented access" to flu vaccinations, offering them daily on a walk-in basis at all Walgreens stores and Take Care Clinics during nearly all pharmacy and clinic hours.

Overall, including its Duane Reade locations, Walgreens has more than 7,500 drug stores and 350 clinics nationwide, with 25,000 immunizers this year — up from around 16,000 nearly a year ago, when the pharmacy chain reported a record pace for administering flu shots. And to sway more people to get immunized, earlier this month Walgreens rolled out a flu shot gift card.

"We encourage everyone to follow the CDC's recommendations," Walgreens chief executive Greg Wasson stated about the launch of the chain's flu vaccine effort, "and with flu shots available during nearly all pharmacy and clinic hours at Walgreens, it has never been easier, never more convenient and never more accessible."

That's the message pharmacy operators hope will stick in their customers' minds this year.