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2022 DSN Industry Issues Summit panel weighs in on why shoppers need pharmacy more than ever

The second panel at Drug Store News’ 24th annual Industry Issues Summit explored how retailers and pharmacy technology companies are responding to customers’ and patients’ needs.

How are retailers and pharmacy technology companies responding to patients' needs? 

That was the question posed to executives during the second panel at Drug Store News’ 24th annual Industry Issues Summit, held in person in New York City on Nov. 30.

The panel, "The Price of Staying Healthy," moderated by Nimesh Jhaveri, president of community pharmacy and health at McKesson, featured top executives from retailers and pharmacy technology companies sharing why shoppers need pharmacy more than ever and how they are responding to customers’ needs to have a positive impact on their health.

Panelists included Kevin Host, senior vice president of pharmacy at Walmart; Dain Rusk, vice president of pharmacy at Publix Pharmacy; Leon Nevers, business development, procurement, supply chain director at H-E-B; Brad Ulrich, group vice president at Walgreens; Jeff Key, president of PioneerRx; Alecia Lashier, chief automation officer at iA; and Valerie Mondelli, executive vice president, healthcare and chief commercial officer of RevSpring.

Jhaveri opened the session by praising pharmacies and their teams for helping patients amid the pandemic, noting that two out of three vaccines were delivered by a pharmacist, 49% of those vaccines were delivered to an individual from a minority ethnic group and 40% of sites were in highly socially vulnerable areas of the country. “Nineteen pharmacy partners came together to work together and deliver the solution to get us back on our feet,” he said. “Can we thank all retailers, vendors and partners that worked together to get us here to this moment?”

[Read more: DSN Industry Issues Summit panel addresses collaboration between pharmacy, medical community]

Jhaveri proceeded, posing the question, "How can retail pharmacy improve the patient experience going forward?"

Noting that pharmacy has done a lot to enhance the patient experience, Host said, “Pharmacy has been on the forefront implementing technologies for many years, even something as simple as real-time claims adjudication. Fast forward to today. We have an omnichannel connection with patients, through apps and texts. Ninety percent of America is within 10 miles of a Walmart and 140 million people shop at a Walmart every week. Those folks are not just there for TVs and groceries, but for health care as well. As we build out clinics, we’re also implementing community health workers into those sites. They are specially trained and are there to act as navigators.”

Through the inclusion of these community health workers, Walmart is addressing social determinants of health, including food insecurity, transportation and housing. “They know where resources are and can help our patients get connected to them,” Host said.

Walmart also reduces costs for patients, by offering ReliOn insulin. Additionally, the company is known for its $4 generics program, which it implemented 15 years ago. “Walmart has been founded on the mission to help people stretch dollars and to help them live more affordably. Pharmacy is another example of that for Walmart,” Host said.

Rusk noted that retail pharmacy has evolved. “It’s about creating a single integrated experience, a health and wellness destination and creating convenience,” Rusk said. “When people have to wait to be seen, it becomes out of sight, out of mind. With employers passing costs on to employees, value-based care is the best outcomes at the cheapest cost. At Publix we want to help the consumer get what they want, where they want it and when they want it. The pandemic created a new customer experience. It’s about convenience.”

[Read more: 2020 Industry Issues Summit's final panel tackles successful retailer-supplier relationships]

As the discussion progressed, Lashier was asked about iA's ability to create platforms for pharmacy personnel to be efficient. “Do pharmacists have the time to provide these additional services?  How can we help to allow them that time? Pharmacies are looking at how to get prescription fulfillment moved centrally so you can give the time back to the pharmacist. Also, allowing patients to have choice as to how they get their prescriptions filled, where they get them filled, what types of additional care and when those different types of care can be given to a person,” she said.

Lashier also advised that it’s important to make sure we develop the tools that allow for patient choice and allow the initiatives we are putting in place to be scaled in the future.

Host discussed how Walmart helps vulnerable populations, including its partnership with United Health Group, which involves sharing of resources, information, tools and people. “Sharing the best of both organizations and sharing in the risk and rewards, will improve the overall access, connectivity and outcomes for those particular patients. We’re focused on seniors first through Medicare Advantage plans. The intent is that that model expands to all patient populations, Medicaid and commercial,” he said.

Next, Rusk addressed how Publix caters to seniors, noting that Publix is trying to be in as many preferred networks as possible. Publix also has invested a lot of resources into technology “so we can pull production out of stores so that it gives our pharmacists and techs more patient facing time to do preventive care, immunizations and test and treat,” Rusk said. “The more we can have our teams, practitioners, pharmacists, techs and clinics build more customer facing experiences the more we can address challenges seniors and millennials are having.”

[Watch DSN: Kroger Health's Lindholz highlights importance of Food as Medicine platform]

Key advanced the discussion to what PioneerRx is doing to enable retailers to do more. “One of the big things we are pushing is around messaging. A message can only be initiated by a doctor. That’s missing a big point. There are a lot of retailers that only have one-way messaging. We need to embrace synchronous messaging, and the ability of a patient to reach out electronically and ask a question. We are working with synchronous messaging and how to do that in a pharmacy,” Key said.

Yet another question posed during the discussion was, How can retail pharmacy and suppliers help shoppers understand the need to manage their health care proactively?

Nevers answered this question, noting that over the last 20 years, H-E-B has changed the way it interacts with customers and their understanding of what pharmacy can do for them.

Noting that the retailer offers free health screenings, Nevers said, "We’ve been able together to impact customers’ lives. Working with wholesalers and suppliers to drive the cost of the components of health screenings down, and to produce information and incentives to try different things that incentivize a healthy lifestyle for H-E-B customers are the tactical things we’ve been successful in working together through the years. When you bundle price in a way that you are interacting with a customer, we get out and talk to customers and touch them, we’re doing a health screening or an immunization, those are the times when we impact patients’ lives.”

Next, Ulrich addressed how Walgreens integrates the entire customer experience with the front and back of the store. “When you think about gaps in care, for example, nutrition for infants, as baby formula became unavailable we did line limits on items so everyone could get their share,” Ulrich said. “We worked with suppliers and manufacturers to increase our own brand supplies at Walgreens to have more formula available. When the FDA allowed us to grab the number one item from Europe, baby formula we were the first to market. When FDA recently approved the sale of OTC hearing aids, Walgreens was first to market on OTC hearing aids. It’s another opportunity for pharmacy and the front of store offering to come together to provide needs. There’s more great work we can do on this front," he said.

Key went on to discuss the importance from a technology standpoint of educating pharmacists on counseling, screenings and preventive care.

“There’s an overwhelming amount of information coming into pharmacists," Key said. "We’re all excited about sharing e-care plans and wearables and we haven’t thought about what happens when we have all of this data and can’t do anything with it. Is there a legal responsibility? There’s a huge effort in technology about bringing this information together and presenting it in a workflow where you can do something about it. We have to simplify how the information gets to the pharmacy and staff and that that information is only the information they need when they need to see it.”

Mondelli moved the discussion further, discussing how RevSpring enables information to flow.

Pointing out that pharmacists are under the medical benefit structure, Mondelli said, “They will be doing more medical services, which creates a unique need for technology. We have enabled patients to pay their self-pay portion through Apple pay, text to pay and create grab-and-go cues before they even get to the pharmacy. We are offering ease of use, accessibility and the experience that the consumer expects and demands today, but also created a relationship with them after the transaction, engaging them clinically through digital means. With all of this technology, we have opportunities to delight patients.”

Lastly, Lashier chimed in saying, “How do we put affordable automation in stores to allow pharmacists to be able to focus on their patients? Analytics is a big piece of what we’re doing. As we move to more digital and virtual offerings, how do we share those services with each other so we can specialize in things like nutrition in the pharmacy and continue to do inoculations and screenings? Those are the things that we are investigating.”

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