Rick Gates wins Pharmacy Executive of the Year accolade

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"The power is in our pharmacists."

DEERFIELD, Ill. — Rick Gates developed a passion for retail pharmacy early on working at an independent drug store while still in high school. Today, as senior vice president of pharmacy and health care at Walgreens, he is making it possible for thousands of pharmacists to have an even greater impact on patient care.

Rick Gates

“The community pharmacist is ideally positioned to have local impact and help solve many of the challenges now facing the health care system,” he points out.

Gates’ commitment to continuously introducing new programs that expand the role of retail pharmacy in the health care ecosystem and his success in executing that vision during a global pandemic have earned him the honor of Chain Drug Review’s Pharmacy ­Executive of the Year.

Gates grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa, and was the first in his family to graduate from college. “I started working at a neighborhood independent pharmacy at age 14 and learned firsthand the impact pharmacists could have providing accessible, quality care to patients in the community,” he recalls.

“The pharmacist who everyone referred to as ‘Doc’ Kiburz was in many cases the first stop for my family and our neighbors to ask simple advice around a cough or seek help navigating care. I’ve spent my entire professional career with Walgreens, which has given me so many opportunities to grow and better understand the impact that pharmacy can have in local care. The most recent has been the honor of helping to roll out the biggest vaccine and testing efforts in history. My other responsibilities include commercial development and sales, contracting, pharma development, pharmacy supply chain, specialty and clinical programs and alliances,” he explains.

Gates notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored what we’ve always known. “Health care is local, and even as a national company, the power is in our pharmacists — embedded in their communities — who have a deep understanding of the neighborhoods they’re in. Patients often see their local pharmacists more than they do their doctor. With pharmacists’ accessibility, they play an important role in filling gaps in care, helping to drive medication adherence, reduce costs and improve patient outcomes.

“We also know that pharmacists are one of the most trusted health care professionals in America, and have only proven through this pandemic experience how they can make a meaningful difference in combatting misinformation around vaccines and arming patients with credible information to make the choice that’s right for them.”

Gates explains that building on that foundation, pharmacists have the potential to expand their role as health care providers through gaining prescriptive authority to test and treat patients for different conditions and illnesses or creating collaborative practice agreements with physicians. “A great example is our current pilot in Florida with a flu test and treat program that allows pharmacists to prescribe therapy for those that test positive for flu. This helps make patient experience and care even more accessible to the community.”

WalgreensGates also believes that the pandemic has helped enable pharmacy to move faster to solve local care issues. “Our pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have administered more than 45 million COVID-19 vaccines and counting, and have demonstrated that we can impact communities at scale. The pandemic demanded fast solutions and partnership and further emphasized that the timing is right for Walgreens to play an even bigger role in health care services. Consumers are embracing retail pharmacy as a health care destination, and we are building on this renewed focus to expand Walgreens’ presence in health care. Health care is inherently local — the needs of communities are diverse, and with 9,000 stores across the nation, Walgreens has a deep understanding of the neighborhoods and towns we are in.”

He notes that the company continues to invest in technology and enhance processes so that its pharmacy team members can work at the top of their license and spend more one-on-one time with their patients and deliver expanded offerings with freed-up time. “Using cutting-edge automation technology from iA, a company we recently made a majority investment in, we will leverage our existing AmerisourceBergen distribution network to efficiently fill prescriptions and quickly get them to our pharmacies through micro-fulfillment centers. We’ve already opened two automated micro-fulfillment facilities serving over 1,000 pharmacies in the Phoenix and Dallas areas, with plans to have an additional 22 facilities by 2024. Further, we are building a new pharmacy dispensing platform that will make it easier for our pharmacists to fill prescriptions, manage inventory and provide additional clinical interactions.”

Gates continues, “Finally, our recently announced Walgreens Health business segment of Walgreens Boots Alliance will focus on delivering health care services through a consumer-centric, technology-enabled health care platform to improve health outcomes and lower cost of care. Through technology, we can better address common pain points and remove access barriers for patients, while driving efficiencies in our pharmacies that allows pharmacists to establish an even more meaningful connection with patients and providers. Combined, these developments will automate certain tasks and further free our pharmacists’ capacity to provide personalized care and additional health services.”

Gates praises his team for all they have accomplished over the past year. “I am so incredibly proud of our pharmacy team members for stepping up from the onset of the pandemic ensuring patients had access to credible information and medications, all the way through COVID-19 testing and rolling out vaccines nationwide. We’ve now administered about 45 million COVID-19 vaccines and completed more than 16 million COVID-19 tests, playing an important role in protecting our patients and reducing community spread. Many of our pharmacists have gone above and beyond the task at hand — from organizing and staffing off-site clinics to personally delivering medications to high-risk patients at the onset of the pandemic.”

He notes that although this year has been absolutely challenging, it’s also been rewarding knowing that the work Walgreens is doing is helping the country turn the corner and return to everyday life. “Our pharmacy team members are deeply committed to our mission and have done amazing things getting vaccines and testing out to millions of patients. We’ve launched several efforts to invest in and thank our employees for their hard work, including one-time bonuses and increasing the starting hourly wage to $15.

“With our focus now shifting toward COVID-19 boosters and vaccines for children ages 5 to 11, we continue to help our patients understand eligibility requirements, make the vaccination experience easy and convenient, and break down access barriers.

“We also remain dedicated to ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and testing while addressing vaccine hesitancy through off-site clinics and educational initiatives in collaboration with partners like the Ad Council and local church groups for education, LULAC, Coalition of 100 Black Women and 100 Black Men of America to address access and hesitancy, and Uber to remove barriers like transportation. We can and will play an even bigger role in health equity going forward.”

He notes that Walgreens also continues to expand and develop partnerships with payers and providers that enable it to better deliver value-based care to its customers. “For example, we invested in Shields Health Solutions to complement our existing specialty pharmacy offering and expand on our health system partnerships across the country, ultimately helping to improve access and health outcomes and lower total cost of care. Another example is our collaboration with Blue Shield of California, providing Walgreens Health Corner services to Blue Shield commercial members to improve their health outcomes.”

Gates explains that through Health Corner locations, licensed health advisors will provide in-person and virtual clinical and nonclinical services, assisting with health, nutrition, fitness and disease management care coordination. “As we deepen our focus on health care with pharmacy as our anchor, we will continue to accelerate and develop new models of care that focus on condition management and whole-person care.”

He adds that Walgreens is well positioned to engage consumers effectively and efficiently at scale with its national footprint, accessibility and growing digital presence. “We can serve as the connective tissue between our patients, payers and providers and, to do this, partnership is key.”

“One good example of this is our strategic partnership with VillageMD, which we recently announced an additional $5.2 billion investment in to accelerate the opening of 1,000 Village Medical at Walgreens primary care practices by 2027. Working together with VillageMD, we’re reimagining how co-located care teams with primary care physicians and pharmacists can make health care easier and more effective than ever before,” he says.

Gates adds, “It all goes back to where I started at that local independent pharmacy in Iowa. Pharmacy and pharmacists can have a huge impact in the communities we serve. This type of care and interest in our community’s overall health inspired me to become a pharmacist in the first place, and I look forward to seeing how our pharmacists step forward and be the connective tissue of care in each community they are in — just like ‘Doc’ Kiburz did when I was growing up, but now so much more.”


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