Retailers take aim at health disparities

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The United States devotes many more resources to health care than any other nation in the world. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, per capita health care spending in this country reached $12,318 in 2021, well ahead of No. 2 Germany, at $7,383, and more than double Canada, at $5,905. For its $4 trillion a year investment, the U.S. is not receiving a very good return, lagging behind other industrialized nations by such standard measures as life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, and incidence of chronic disease.

The poor performance of the U.S. as a whole obscures an equally troubling fact — huge gaps exist in terms of who has ready access to health care services. If a person has robust insurance, he or she can receive top-notch treatment. Unfortunately, over 25 million Americans still lack coverage more than a decade after passage of the Affordable Care Act, and many who do have insurance face high deductibles and co-pays. Those individuals may not be able to afford to see a physician until their condition becomes so severe that they have to seek treatment in a hospital emergency room, the most expensive site of care.

Chain Drug Review recently teamed up with Kearney and Nestlé Health Science to present Together in the Fight for Health Equity, a daylong event at Kearney’s offices in Chicago that explored the issue from a variety of perspectives, including what pharmacies, grocers and other organizations can do to help alleviate health disparities. Attendees examined some of the barriers that prevent people from achieving optimal health (poverty, education and racial prejudice among them), as well as obstacles to addressing the problem (staffing, bureaucracy and cost). The focal point of the day, however, was how to improve the health and wellness of individuals living in disadvantaged communities.

Following introductory remarks by Nestlé’s Abigail Buckwalter and Bob Goode, Dominque Harris and Laura Bowen of Kearney laid out a framework that companies can use to develop a health equity strategy that “minimizes the hurt, helps the heal and amplifies the impact.”

A panel of distinguished retailers — Andre Persaud of Rite Aid, Warren Moore of Walmart Health, Jennifer Zilka of Good Neighbor Pharmacy, Rina Shah of Walgreens and Dr. Marc Watkins of Kroger — then assessed the contributions of pharmacies and grocers to the cause and what more they can do to move the needle. The positive impact to people’s health and well-being that those retailers are capable of making was thrown into relief by COVID-19.

Pharmacy operators stepped in when the government’s initial immunization efforts bogged down, and they quickly took the lead in protecting individuals from the virus. By leveraging their presence in local communities and consumer trust in the professionals who staff their stores, pharmacies have administered more than 265 million doses of COVID vaccine — two-thirds of the total — enabling the nation to return to a semblance of normalcy. Moreover, supermarkets and drug stores continued to serve customers throughout the course of the pandemic, ensuring access to food and other essential products.

Convenience, trust and expertise position drug stores and supermarkets (a growing number of which now include walk-in clinics) to address health disparities, which disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities where those retailers often represent the only oasis in health and food deserts. In addition to treating problems when they arise, panelists stressed that the retailers can provide information that equips their customers to prevent health problems. Turning the spotlight to the link between good nutrition and well-being is a prime example.

Participants in a second panel looked at health equity through a wide-angle lens, probing various social determinants of health and what various stakeholders can do to address them. Walgreens’ Robert Tompkins was joined by Ayesha Jaco of West Side United, a local community group; Dr. Andrew Abraham of nutritional product supplier Orgain; Aresha Martinez-Cardoso of the University of Chicago; and Anita Brikman of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

Eliminating health disparities is a monumental challenge, but attendees at the event, who also included executives from Albertsons, CVS Health and Meijer, expressed their commitment to crafting solutions and building partnerships to support the health and well-being of people living in disadvantaged communities.

There is much more to be said about the issue, and upcoming editions of Chain Drug Review will feature specific insights from Together in the Fight for Health Equity. For the time being, it is enough to say that it was inspiring to see so many leading retailers and their counterparts from other organizations dedicated to addressing this critical need.


Adheris Health

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