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Immunizations in focus: Rite Aid is arming pharmacists with more than just syringes

Offering consumers a safe, convenient and reliable place for immunizations are playing a big role in Rite Aid’s overall pharmacy strategy.

In fact, more than 6,300 Rite Aid pharmacists, as well as some pharmacy technicians, across the chain’s 2,460 stores have been trained and certified as vaccinators — a number that may come in very handy as the federal government considers using retail pharmacies as distribution centers for COVID-19 vaccines in coming weeks. 

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When it happens, Rite Aid will be prepared to help, relying on more than a decade of experience with in-store vaccinations. “Immunizations have been an important part of our pharmacy strategy,” said Jocelyn Konrad, Rite Aid’s executive vice president and chief pharmacy officer. “Elevating the role of our pharmacists and vaccines are one of the first things we were able to do as a profession inside a retail pharmacy that actually connected us on a higher level outside of filling a commodity, or prescription.” 

Rite Aid embarked on its vaccination program in 2009, just as individual states were starting to authorize pharmacists as vaccinators. “Once we got to a really good place in 2012-2013, we said, ‘If you are going to work for Rite Aid this is important to us and we feel it’s important to the communities we serve. You will be required to be certified to immunize to work in our stores,’” Konrad added. 

To that end, training and education have been vital. All pharmacists initially take the American Pharmacists Association’s immunization training program. They also are required to complete several in-house modules every year to ensure that they are up to date on immunizations.   

With the confluence of the flu and the novel coronavirus, Rite Aid is pulling out all the stops to impress upon customers the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu this year. “We have a whole marketing strategy to ensure that our customers understand, especially as COVID and flu potentially would be colliding at this point in time,” Konrad noted. “We wanted them to know that it’s more important this year than ever that they get their flu shot to protect them from the flu, as we all try to navigate through COVID.” 

Educating wary consumers about vaccines is also a big part of the initiative, when needed. “One of the biggest misconceptions we always hear is that flu shots can give you the flu, or the belief that the flu vaccine can increase your risk of getting it,” Konrad said. “We utilize our specially trained pharmacists who are trusted advisors. They are our best asset in our stores to reassure our customers, and to bust the myths with clinical data and information that consumers can understand, to assure them that some of those myths are not true.”

Conversations about the risks versus the benefits of getting the flu shot is yet another conversation that Rite Aid pharmacists are engaging in with reluctant patients, Konrad explained.

“Patients may say, ‘How effective is the flu vaccine?’ ‘Should I get the vaccine? I never get the flu so I don’t need it,’  or ‘I’m not going to get sick,’ or ‘It’s not going to knock me down, I’m strong and healthy,’” she said. “We explain that the flu vaccine is not only for you. Similar to COVID, it’s for protecting people around you who might be more vulnerable. You may even get the flu and have mild symptoms, but potentially put others at risk as well.”

Elevating the role of our pharmacists and vaccines are one of the first things we were able to do as a profession inside a retail pharmacy that actually connected us on a higher level outside of filling a commodity, or prescription
Jocelyn Konrad, Rite Aid chief pharmacy officer

Beyond dispelling vaccine myths through conversations, the chain also is utilizing technology to encourage patients to get inoculated. For example, Rite Care, which is embedded in the workflow of the chain’s pharmacy dispensing system, prompts pharmacists for any opportunities based on data to recommend flu, as well as other vaccines, and clinical services for customers when they visit Rite Aid stores. 

“Because it’s a proprietary system we have the ability to prompt whatever we feel is appropriate for that customer to thrive and live their best lives, as well as to recommend some alternative remedies, if it’s appropriate,” Konrad said.

Rite Aid also has instituted the My Immunization History portal, which automatically records immunizations that patients have received at their Rite Aid pharmacy. “That helps us support providing the best recommendations to our customers,” Konrad said. “We do our best to pull that in or ask those questions, and we keep that log inside of our system, so we’re not asking them about their vaccine history multiple times. This is especially helpful to seniors. If two different pharmacists ask them what vaccines they received, they may get confused. We have all that data to make sure we’re making the best recommendation at that time.”

As Rite Aid forges ahead with its mission of creating a combination offering of traditional and alternative remedies, flu season is an opportune time for its pharmacists to help patients focus on and improve their overall health. In addition to encouraging patients to get a flu shot and stock up on OTC products — as well as wearing a mask and washing their hands — Rite Aid is showcasing alternative remedies meant to boost the immune system. “Our pharmacists are having conversations around the flu shot and providing the flu shot, but they also are having conversations with our customers and encouraging them to support their immunity in other ways with OTC remedies.” 

While Rite Aid always has incorporated strict safety protocols for vaccinations, as well as any store visit, the emergence of COVID-19 has necessitated extra measures. Now, Rite Aid ensures that pharmacists have the proper PPE while they are administering vaccines. Additionally, customers are required to wear a mask or face covering when they receive an immunization. 

Patients and associates have their temperatures taken, and in addition to enhanced cleaning measures in the stores, employees disinfect the area before and after each immunization. 

With the Food and Drug Administration granting emergency use authorization to Pfizer and BioNTech’s  COVID-19 vaccine, and Moderna’s vaccine awaiting emergency approval, Konrad said she is confident that the chain’s pharmacists are well positioned and well prepared to undertake the Herculean task of helping to manage mass administration of the vaccine when it is available.

“We’re building that whole plan as we speak and we are looking at a scheduling tool being one of the components,” she said. “We are looking to see how best we can service our customers based on the availability of the vaccine, as well as the consumers’ engagement on getting vaccinated. It’s happening faster than I would have expected, but we’re preparing for that because we know that we will play a critical role in supporting the masses and getting them vaccinated, similar to what we’ve done with COVID-19 testing.”

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