MONTE CARLO, Monaco — Retail pharmacies are confronted with the challenge of making profound changes at an unprecedented pace. Demographic trends, cost pressures, and advances in heath care science and technology compel pharmacy chains and independents alike to rethink their business model and their relation to patients and business partners.
Walgreens Boots Alliance is in the vanguard of that process. The company last month held its biannual conference for members of the Alphega Pharmacy network, a dynamic group of 6,600 independent drug stores in eight European nations and Turkey that receives pivotal support from WBA.
Over the course of two days of plenary sessions, seminars and workshops, a record-high 1,700 attendees at the Grimaldi Forum here learned much about the trajectory of the pharmacy profession and the thinking of the people who oversee Alphega and WBA. Many of the insights shared at the meeting shed as much light on the company’s approach to its chain holdings around the world as they did on its network of independents.
“The health care landscape is constantly evolving; along with advances in technology and increased digitization in this sector, patients and customers are more informed than ever before,” Ornella Barra, co-chief operating officer of WBA and Alphega’s founder and guiding force, told delegates. “They have higher expectations for greater access, convenience and flexibility to manage their health care needs, and we must respond to this demand and improve the health care experience for all.
“Alphega Pharmacy is a network of innovators, and so we must embrace change, in all its forms, to make a positive difference to the health and well-being of the communities we serve.”
In remarks that concluded the conference, Stefano Pessina, WBA’s vice chairman and chief executive officer, elaborated on the company’s strategy of seamlessly melding the traditional strengths of community pharmacy with new technological tools, and pledged to make those resources accessible to Alphega members. The move is, in part at least, a response to a perceived gap in the Alphega offer.
“Everybody knows that the pharmacies across the world are the best health care delivery network,” he said. “Pharmacies are everywhere, and they are utilized by everybody. And they have a very important social role everywhere in the world.
“Pharmacy today is the result of the investments and the professional experience across centuries and across generations. It was not created overnight. It took a long time to create this network. But, of course, such a strong network needs to keep evolving and changing. And to do this, pharmacists have to leverage the technology. They shouldn’t be afraid of the technology. Technology is here to help.”
Pessina reminded the audience that the nature of health care is shifting, with rapid progress in the pharmaceutical and information technology sectors opening up new opportunities for the pharmacy profession. Seizing those opportunities will position WBA and Alphega to make an even greater contribution to the well-being of patients than they have in the past.
“Your challenge today is to understand how you can harness this knowledge and take advantage of the technological resources to improve the health outcomes for the patient and to understand how you can better serve your customers,” he said. “We should, all of us, contribute to the overall goal of ensuring medical care for each patient. And to do that we have to be able to provide a fantastic physical and digital experience to the customer. Digital/physical, not just physical. At Walgreens Boots Alliance we have the power to support the pharmacist in this arena and the power of working with each and every one of you.”
The company has moved aggressively to develop next-generation digital tools to transform its core business. WBA has entered into partnerships with major technology companies to bring what they can provide to bear on improving health care delivery. Representatives of the most prominent of those partners — Jim Weinstein, head of innovation and health equity at Microsoft Healthcare and a senior vice president at the parent company, and Andy Conrad, CEO of Verily, Alphabet’s health care subsidiary, spoke at the Alphega convention.
The centrality of technology to the future of pharmacy was further reinforced during remarks by Anthony Roberts, senior vice president and global chief information officer at WBA; Sharon Hartigan, head of digital products at Alphega, who talked about enhancements to the network’s online platform and app; and a roundtable discussion involving suppliers and WBA executives.
Pessina, who was trained as a nuclear engineer and has a firm grasp of science and technology, called on pharmacists in the Alphega network to wholeheartedly embrace the new era being brought about by technology. He said that by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to health care delivery, providers will be better equipped than ever before to understand the behavior of patients and anticipate their needs. In the process, the scope of pharmacy practice will be expanded.
“Being able to predict the evolution of different health conditions will enable us to generate new business processes, and in the pharmacy we will be able to offer new solutions and more effective therapies, increasing, of course, the role of the pharmacy within the overall health care system,” noted Pessina.
“All this data can also have a different effect, let’s say a commercial effect, because it can improve the efficiency within the pharmacy business in areas like negotiating better rates. Of course, it’s not possible for all of you to invest in artificial intelligence. And this is where Alphega can really help. It can make a big difference to our members.”
As Pessina talked about WBA’s efforts to reimagine the profession for the next 10 or 20 years, he assured listeners that pharmacy — both chain and independent — will remain an essential pillar of quality, cost-effective patient care.
“Pharmacy is a great fundamental for the health care value chain,” he said. “Of course, it’s in our interest to recognize it and collaborate openly to achieve the best results.
“And honestly, I believe that independent pharmacies and pharmacy chains can coexist, and positively coexist, in the long term. Of course, WBA has the size and the scale so that we can invest when needed and help the independent pharmacist. We believe that being part of a wide and strong global network can be a very important advantage today.”
Barra, who was an independent pharmacist before teaming up with Pessina to build what would become WBA, addressed how the company’s strategic direction will affect members of the Alphega network.
“Innovation and digitalization are right at the core of a new, exciting phase in WBA’s growth,” she said, “and I’m sure you’re wondering — what about Alphega in this context? There is no doubt that Alphega is part of this new phase. “Embracing Innovation, Empowering Pharmacy” — this is the theme of this convention. On the one hand, the focus is on freely embracing with a truly innovative spirit the greatest trends of today and also those of the future. On the other hand, never forgetting the key role of pharmacy and the place of independent pharmacists at the center of the health care system.”
She noted that the ongoing revolution triggered by technology will, no doubt, bring with it some destruction in the business world and job market, but expressed confidence that community pharmacy, with its inherent strengths, will prevail. “Let me say, technology and innovation is, first of all, a global process with global protagonists. After our recent partnership agreements with Microsoft and Verily, Walgreens Boots Alliance is very well positioned in the race at the global level to buy and invent things that relate to innovative pharmacy service. Nonetheless, even a great company like ours is well aware that any innovation, even the most powerful, will never be able to replace the pharmacy system, with its human touch, its unique relation with the customer and the patient.”
Stressing the second part of the conference’s theme, “Empowering Pharmacy,” Barra articulated WBA’s vision and its impact on Alphega pharmacies: “What we want to be is a global platform that benefits all parts of the supply chain — manufacturing, wholesaling, retailing — including independent pharmacies — and, of course, the customers and the patients. Don’t forget, partnership is one of the more important values for Walgreens Boots Alliance.”
The impressive group of individuals taking part in the Alphega conference illustrates the last point. In additional to the technology executives already mentioned, Pfizer Inc. CEO Albert Bourla, Mylan CEO Heather Bresch, and representatives of GlaxoSmithKine and Merck appeared.
A passionate champion of independent drug stores in general and Alphega pharmacies in particular, Barra left members of the audience with the clear sense that they are not alone as they attempt to navigate the rapidly evolving health care landscape.
“Walgreens Boots Alliance and Alphega have the ability to support you in several different aspects of the business — including marketing, IT, branding, business solutions, training — key areas that you need to pay attention to if you want to significantly increase the productivity of your pharmacy,” she said. “These are all disciplines where you need skills at a professional and international level.
“What Walgreens Boots Alliance can bring is great expertise at the global level so you can implement innovative solutions at the local level.”
Combining the capabilities provided by WBA with the invaluable patient connections that Alphega pharmacists have cultivated over many years, Barra noted, will enable customers to experience a new level of effective, personalized care that is both accessible and affordable.