One characteristic Ornella Barra has evinced throughout her career in community pharmacy and drug wholesaling is the ability to adapt to changing conditions. That talent has served Walgreens Boots Alliance’s co-chief operating officer well in recent months: Both before and after the emergence of COVID-19, she has been a catalyst for innovation. A good example of Barra’s flexibility when confronted with new circumstances is the response of Alliance Healthcare, WBA’s pharmaceutical wholesaling business in Europe to the surge in demand created by the novel coronavirus.
“It took a terrible crisis like COVID-19 to make everyone aware of the vital role of the pharmaceutical wholesale industry,” she says. “With most countries in lockdown, our warehouse employees and drivers have literally been on the front lines, continuing to work regularly to ensure the supply of medicines to pharmacies, hospitals and patients.
“We had to invent new solutions to face unexpected requests, cooperating with both governments and manufacturers. In the U.K., Alliance Healthcare and Alloga [a logistics unit of WBA that reports to Barra] supported the National Health Service with the supply of nine field hospitals across the country, as part of a program set up by NHS England. Alloga teams in Europe also worked hard collaborating with manufacturers — in the Netherlands with Abbott, to accommodate last-minute, large-volume shipments and maintain on-time supply of essential medicines, and in Czech Republic with bioMérieux, to ensure the supply to Eastern Europe of their rapid mass-testing kit for the virus.”
Barra directly supports those efforts by closely coordinating WBA’s efforts with other members of the supply chain, everyone from the leaders of major pharmaceutical manufacturers to independent pharmacy owners who are part of WBA’s Alphega network in Europe and Turkey.
“I am in contact regularly with all our counterparts, to help our teams ensuring the distribution of essential products,” she explains. “Thanks to our global outreach and strong relationships with suppliers, we have been able to face this ‘tidal wave’ successfully. Our wholesaling network truly demonstrated its strength and full reliability in such a critical time.”
The openness to new ideas shown by Alliance Healthcare permeates WBA. The pharmacy-led health, wellness and beauty enterprise stretches across five continents, all of which Barra, a native of Italy fluent in three languages, knows well.
“Well before COVID-19, we started a journey to transform completely our retail pharmacy business, creating a more modern pharmacy and retail offering, with a strong focus on digitalization and cost management,” says Barra. “This effort has been going on for some time, and we are seeing initial positive results.
“Our pharmacies are offering an increasingly wide range of innovative health services. We recently expanded Walgreens Find Care — a digital health services and solutions marketplace live on Walgreens.com and the Walgreens app — to more telehealth service providers, connecting patients and customers with more options to get convenient and affordable access to care from home.
“This is particularly important right now, as it helps to minimize exposure to COVID-19. With new features and additional national and regional partners, patients can now connect with more than 30 providers who treat over 100 conditions and receive care for common health needs like illness and injury; cough and cold; mental health services; and chronic condition management. Walgreens is also providing primary care services in the Houston area through a partnership with VillageMD to offer convenient, quality care to customers in the heart of their community.
“In the U.K., Boots rolled out a brand new skin scanning service, expanding the preexisting mole scanning service, to help customers with any skin condition seeking advice and dermatological care. We have also launched in 2019 a cystitis test and treat service — combining a urine self-testing kit, an app and pharmacist’ advice, to help customers quickly test for a possible urinary tract infection (UTI) from the comfort of their own homes and access the appropriate treatment — in turn, helping to combat the rise of antibiotic resistance.”
New concepts are being implemented across WBA’s global retail holdings, which, with the exception of those in the U.S., are overseen directly by Barra. (Co-chief operating officer Alex Gourlay is responsible for Walgreens in this country)
“In the Netherlands, a pharmacy-led pharmacogenomic testing service was launched in selected Boots and Alphega Pharmacy locations, analyzing a patient’s DNA to give doctors and pharmacists information that may help them optimize medication selection for that patient; reduce trial and error in the prescribing process; lower potential health care costs; and decrease the likelihood of adverse drug reactions,” she notes.
“This is a great example of how we share innovation also with independent pharmacists across the Alphega network in Europe, which has now reached 10 countries. They benefit directly from our innovative, pharmacy-centered approach, and they get access to several new services. All pharmacies have a greater role to play as a first point of call for health care. COVID-19 is only highlighting the relevance of community pharmacies — it is no coincidence that the governments of the U.S. and the U.K. have chosen WBA as a strategic partner for the COVID-19 test programs in their respective countries.”
In addition to international retailing (excluding the U.S.) and pharmaceutical wholesaling, Barra’s vast portfolio includes global brands, communications and other business services, CSR and human resources. Of all those areas, the last may have the most meaning for Barra, especially during a global pandemic.
“Our top priority has been to ensure safe and suitable working conditions for all employees,” she says. “Our people are our greatest asset and deserve all our attention. Before the crisis burst, we immediately set up a steering committee, meeting seven days a week to provide employees with clear guidance and support. All WBA top executives from across the world are on this committee, enabling quick sharing of best practices and allowing for nuances within each region/country’s local government guidance.
“Primarily, we took extra care of colleagues who continued working in stores and warehouses and as couriers. They received all possible personal protection equipment as well as precise guidelines and support. We kept everyone updated regularly, with division-specific guidance and dedicated contact channels. For people having to work remotely, we expanded the use of digital tools to enable collaboration and productivity and to help people stay connected. We are also listening to everyone’s feedback to continue being as close as possible to their needs. Despite the extraordinary situation, our team members have been working tirelessly to ensure the continuity of our business. I am so proud of this work, and I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to them all.”
They, in turn, have reason to be grateful to Barra for the dynamic leadership that she continues to provide during these uncertain times.