On the eve of McKesson ideaShare — the annual forum for members of the pharmaceutical wholesaler’s Health Mart network of 5,000 independent drug stores — Eyad Farah asserted that, energized by its work in the battle against COVID-19, retail pharmacy stands on the threshold of a new era.
“This is the right time to be advocating for pharmacy,” said Farah, who is president of Health Mart and Health Mart Atlas, one of the nation’s leading pharmacy services administrative organizations. “We’re at an inflection point, and we have to keep pushing if we want to take the profession to the next level.
“COVID has shined the light on something that we all believed in — pharmacists and pharmacies are integrated not just into the health care system, but into their communities. Reflecting back over the last two and a half years, I can’t imagine how we could have gotten through this without what pharmacies were doing every day and the 250 million-plus vaccines that they’ve administered. We knew all along that pharmacies can and should do more. We have to solve, we have to see a focus on clinical services.”
The value of the relationship between McKesson, Health Mart and the independent drug stores they serve was illuminated during the pandemic. With its vast scale and diverse resources, the corporation was able to craft solutions for COVID testing and immunization programs, and to do so in two to four weeks, instead of the six months or year such projects usually take.
“Our approach was, first, make it very easy for our members to implement the solution,” Farah explained. “When we think about COVID testing or vaccine administration, there is an enormous amount of administrative work, credentialing and documentation that is required. So we said, ‘We need to come up with a solution that’s prepackaged in a way that pharmacies can consume it easily, and they have to be able to do that while continuing to manage their business operations to help their patients.’ The experience taught us that we can execute when we stay focused on what’s important for our customers.”
The tools provided by Health Mart helped overcome some initial hesitancy on the part of members and unlock their potential in the fight against COVID. Farah recalled that the attitude among members quickly shifted from “Can we do this?” to “My community needs me, and I’m absolutely here for them.”
Backed by the resources of Health Mart, independent pharmacists were free to innovate in ways that addressed the needs of the local area. One example cited by Farah is Rock Creek Pharmacy, an independent drug store in Bessemer, Ala., owned by Teri Anders.
“They couldn’t handle the volume of testing and vaccines in the store, so they converted a nearby barn into a clinic,” he said. “They brought in clinical teams, and now they’re doing diabetes education and are focused on holistic patient care, in addition to COVID vaccines and testing. You’re not going to see the chains do things like that; it’s what independent community pharmacies are all about.”
Health Mart’s mission is to offer members a complete array of foundational capabilities — everything from financial guidance about entering the business and store design to digital technology and specialty pharmacy — enabling them to operate pharmacies that, in Farah’s words, “go beyond the pill.”
“We can no longer think about pharmacy as just a place to go in and get your medications,” Farah said. “It has to be a destination of care where patients can get immunizations, advice on health and wellness, point-of-care testing, preventative care, and clinical services.
“We have to start evolving the business of pharmacy to be a lot more of that holistic provider of patient care. At the same time, we have to make sure that there is appropriate reimbursement for what we do, but I believe we’re moving in that direction.”
Health Mart will do its part to shape the future of pharmacy together with its members (a commitment made manifest by the revamped structure of ideaShare, which stressed input and interaction from the independent pharmacists in attendance).
“There is a benefit to being part of a larger organization,” said Farah. “The balance that we are very much aware of is that we also want to make sure that our members continue to feel and operate as independents. Our job is to give them a platform and make things easy for them to focus on the thing that they went to pharmacy school for, which is taking care of their patients.”