Walgreens store showcases the future of pharmacy

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RICHLAND HILL, Texas — Walgreens Boots Alliance’s vision for coordinated health care and the role of the pharmacist is being realized at a Walgreens store in this community just outside of Dallas.

Pharmacist Adolf Makia is able to come out from behind the counter to interact with patients and to follow up with them by phone to see how they’re doing, and make sure they’re taking their medications as directed and getting them refilled on time. He and his team are also doing more vaccinations and COVID tests, and every other week they huddle with Dr. Geetha Swamy Iyah and her team at the VillageMD primary care clinic that opened at the store in January, to discuss ways to better coordinate the care they offer to patients.

One of the reasons Makia has the time to take such a patient-focused approach as a pharmacist is that Walgreens operates a micro-fulfillment center about 15 miles away in Northlake, Texas, which reduces his workload by filling routine prescriptions. The Northlake center supports about 500 Walgreens stores across all of Texas, parts of Arkansas, parts of New Mexico and parts of Louisiana.

The Northlake facility is one of eight micro-fulfillment centers Walgreens has opened to support its pharmacies. Another is scheduled to open by year-end, and several more are slated to open in the next few years.

Together the existing facilities — located in the Memphis; Phoenix; Dallas; Denver; Indianapolis; Mansfield, Mass.; Orlando, Fla.; and Liberty, Mo., metropolitan areas — support more than 1,800 stores. They fill about 20% to 25% of those stores’ prescriptions, and that share is expected to rise as efficiencies improve. Already each robot in a facility can fill up to 300 prescriptions in an hour, which is about the same number of prescriptions as the pharmacists at a typical Walgreens store can fill in a day.

Rina Shah, who was appointed to the newly created role of vice president of the pharmacy of the future and health care segments at Walgreens on June 1, says the idea of using technology to support the role of the pharmacist actually preceded the COVID-19 pandemic.

She notes that five or six years ago, health insurance plans started paying pharmacies to help keep their patients healthier by helping them stay on their medication regimens.

“So we had health plans that wanted us to do this, and a payment model to support it, and pharmacists who were willing and able to do it,” Shah says. “But we also had capacity constraints, because there was only so much that our pharmacists could do.”

The timing was right for using technology to free pharmacists from routine tasks, so that they could spend more time interacting with patients, says Rex Swords, group vice president of centralized services at Walgreens.

“Taking big bottles of pills and putting them into the little bottles of pills, that’s not what a pharmacist went to school for six years to do,” Swords explains. “That’s an incredibly important activity, and it’s got to be done correctly and accurately. But is that really what we want the pharmacists who are within five miles of 80% of the population doing? Or do we want them engaging with customers and talking to them about their medication therapy, and giving the vaccinations that we all saw were so critical during COVID?”

Makia says the change in his practice as a pharmacist has been dramatic. “This is one of the best things the company has done for pharmacists and our patients.”


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