New era dawning for retail pharmacy

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In the wake of disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic, people are altering the way they think about their health and how they go about maintaining it. The shift, together with cost pressures and changes in the health care system, is clearing the way for retail pharmacy to play a bigger part in patient care.

A new report from CVS Health finds that 81% of consumers believe that it is very important that their primary care provider take a holistic view of their well-being. The vast majority of participants in the “2022 Health Care Insights Study” — which involved 1,000 adults across the U.S. — seek more productive engagement with health care providers and want those professionals to be cognizant of mental and emotional as well as physical issues. Eighty-three percent of respondents would like to see better coordination among all providers, with the very reasonable expectation that improved communication will result in improved patient outcomes.

Consumer attitudes dovetail with the strengths of retail pharmacy. Members of the profession are deeply embedded in the community and, in many cases, have long-established relationships with their patients. Ease of access and frequency of contact help facilitate the type of interactions that the study shows people would like to have with providers. The local pharmacy is often the first place consumers turn for advice on their health.

Those relationships should be enhanced in the future. Building on the experience of the pandemic, when people went to their pharmacy for not just COVID testing and vaccinations but many other health care needs, members of the profession should insist on an expanded scope of practice. At a minimum, pharmacists should retain the powers they’ve been granted under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act. Pharmacies are ideally situated to serve as convenient neighborhood health care centers.

The big pharmacy chains are taking that vision a step further. CVS now has more than 1,100 MinuteClinics and 950 HealthHUBs staffed by nurse practitioners in its stores, and it intends to add physician services to its lineup this year. Walgreens Boots Alliance owns a majority stake in VillageMD and is rolling out the primary care practice across the country. It intends to have 600 or more VillageMD at Walgreens facilities in operation by 2025. And Walmart Health continues to expand, opening clinics that supplement primary care with dental, vision and mental health services. Those initiatives and others like them, including Amazon’s just acquired One Medical, may well represent a paradigm shift in the way Americans obtain basic primary care.

Another aspect of health care addressed in the CVS study is the use of digital technology to extend the reach of practitioners, making it possible for them to provide care wherever and whenever it is needed. Ninety-two percent of survey respondents indicated that convenience is an important factor in accessing care. More than a third of them said they have selected a virtual care option to save money, time or both.

Health care providers are bullish about the ability of digital tools to elevate patient adherence with treatment regimens. Almost 95% of them said that text messages, emails and phone calls increase compliance. And 71% of consumers indicated that such interventions, including reminders about checkups and diagnostic screenings, are somewhat or very important.

Pharmacy operators are in the vanguard when it comes to harnessing the power of technology. Having long used advanced computer-driven robotic systems to streamline the dispensing process and free pharmacists to spend more time with patients, most retailers now offer customers multiple ways to access health care products and services. Moreover, digital tools are making it easier for pharmacists to communicate effectively with physicians and other providers.

Another recent study, CoverMyMeds’ “2022 Medication Access Report,” supports that finding. It states that 77% of chain pharmacies currently utilize a text message system, while 50% offer an app. Of greater significance, the report says that 52% of patients believe that the relationship with their pharmacist has changed during the course of the pandemic. Thirty-seven percent indicated that they’ve come to rely more on their pharmacist for information about health conditions and medications, and 36% turn to those professionals more frequently for advice about health insurance coverage and payment options.

The stars are aligning for retail pharmacy. With consumers leaning more heavily than ever on the profession; pharmacy operators adding new services, both in their stores and beyond; and technology helping to make care more accessible and affordable, a new era is taking shape.


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