Lupin 2023

Retail pharmacy starts to assert itself

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The most significant development in chain drug retailing this year has been its willingness, finally, to begin to unleash the power of the pharmacist and the pharmacy that supports him.

Walgreens’ brilliant decision to begin offering flu shots in September, while both tradition and the mass retailing community determined that October was the ideal month in which to offer the flu vaccine, has already acquired legendary status.

While retailers around the country put up signs announcing that flu vaccinations would be offered in early October, the signs in Walgreens windows and at the chain’s pharmacy counters invited customers to get their flu shots immediately. Even in Bentonville, Ark., home of the world’s largest retailer, Walgreens offered flu shots while Wal-Mart told customers to come back in October.

Speaking of Walgreens, that retailer’s POWER project — designed to put the in-store pharmacist more closely in touch with the patient, aided by such expedients as central fill and central processing of paperwork — is perhaps the most aggressive program yet conceived to encourage pharmacists to do the job they have been trained and hired to do: counsel patients on health and advise them about the prescription and over-the-counter medicines they use.

The program, still in its infancy (it’s been rolled out in Florida and Arizona), is receiving mixed reviews thus far, in part because George Riedl, Walgreens’ point man in implementing the program, has decided to leave the drug chain to pursue other interests.

Then too, some industry people, mainly Walgreens competitors, claim that the program has not been cost-efficient thus far. Moreover, these same sources maintain that consumers have been less than pleased with the lack of urgency in Walgreens’ response to their demands or requests.

Never mind. Walgreens deserves credit for launching a program that has been so badly needed for so long a time, one that brings the pharmacist and the vast knowledge he possesses into closer proximity to a patient universe begging for access to this knowledge.

Whatever the eventual fate of the POWER project, Walgreens has correctly positioned the pharmacist at the heart of the community drug store, rather than locating him out of sight and out of touch with the patients who so desperately need his knowledge and advice.

CVS Caremark, Walgreens’ primary competitor, has not been idly watching the Walgreens experiment. Here too, the idea of bringing the pharmacist into closer, more personal contact with the patient is taking hold.

One example of how successful this approach can be in aligning the pharmacist’s knowledge with the patient’s requirements can be found in Jacksonville, Fla., at the CVS drug store in Sawgrass Village. Here, Pharm.D. Steven Mougeot, a former Navy pharmacist, does what so many pharmacists refrain from doing — he engages the patient.

So it was that a recent visitor to CVS’ Sawgrass Village store, complaining of a lingering cough, was touted off the product he was using and urged to try a different brand — the house brand was also suggested — but only after Mougeot had spent 10 minutes determining the patient’s symptoms and answering some pointed questions about the product he recommended.

“My job,” he said, “is to make drug therapy make sense to the patient.”

Mougeot clearly enjoyed spending this time with a patient who so urgently needed some advice, the kind of advice that many pharmacists refrain from dispensing, either out of indifference or out of insecurity.

Not Mougeot. Having spent six years of intensive study to obtain a Pharm.D. degree, he is secure with what he knows — and not shy about sharing this knowledge.

He is, in short, what community pharmacy claims to expect and demand from the pharmacist behind the counter, yet has done so little to encourage or demand. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the CVS Sawgrass Village store has seen a sharp uptick in pharmacy volume since Mougeot’s arrival last December.

CVS and Walgreens are by no means the only drug store chains encouraging their pharmacists to share their professional knowledge. Indeed, no individual in the industry is more committed to encouraging the pharmacist to behave professionally than Tony Civello, the president and CEO of Kerr Drug.

Later this month, the retailer will unveil a Kerr Community Healthcare Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., a store the drug chain bills as “the most evolutionary and revolutionary pharmacy ever.” No one who knows Ci­vello and what his drug chain has done to advance the profession of community pharmacy in America doubts the veracity of that statement — even in advance of the opening.

Nor are drug chains the only mass retailers working to advance the profession of pharmacy by encouraging its pharmacists to utilize their professional training.

At Winn-Dixie, John Fegan is transforming pharmacy from a largely ignored appendage into a vital asset. Several of his peers in the supermarket industry are working to develop the unmatched opportunity that has come their way to build meaningful synergies between health care and nutrition.

And at Wal-Mart, John Agwunobi has aligned pharmacy with the chain’s O-T-C, optical center and immediate-care clinic businesses, giving the retailer’s health care services common leadership, focus and direction — while increasing their importance to Wal-Mart’s overall strategy.

Still, at the dawn of a new era in health care, the role community pharmacy plays in the health care continuum and the role it could play remain worlds apart. If community pharmacy is to get the credit it so badly needs and so clearly deserves, the gap between reality and potential must be narrowed. And the time to narrow it is growing short.


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