Lessons learned: Panel examines what the industry can learn from the pandemic

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Lessons learned: Panel examines what the industry can learn from the pandemic

By Seth Mendelson - 02/09/2021

What have we learned over the last 10 months? More importantly, how do we take that information, gathered during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and use that data to become better retailers and merchandisers?

To gain a better knowledge of what has happened and how that will impact mass retail in the future, Drug Store News held an online webinar as part of the 22nd annual DSN Industry Issues Summit in December. The panel was moderated by Nimesh Jhaveri, president of community pharmacy at McKesson. 

Panelists for the one hour-plus session were Dain Rusk of Publix, Rina Shah of Walgreens, Ryan Rumbarger of CVS Pharmacy, Craig Norman of H-E-B, Samantha Hoye of Cardinal Health, Jeff Key of PioneerRX, Tom Utech of iA and Alisha Mecier of eHealth.

Jhaveri got the lively debate going by emphasizing all that has happened in the world and the world of mass retailing during the course of 2020. And, he stressed, in addition to the usual activities in the world of sports and business, not to mention politics, the pandemic managed to make everything else pale by comparison.

“What did we really learn from this pandemic?” he asked the panel. “What did we learn about our industry’s capacity to actually manage all of these issues? And then, how do we use this momentum to solve other common problems facing us in the future?” 

I think at that moment, in that March, April, May timeframe when everything was all heated up, when we didn’t really even know much about the virus, we realized the importance that our pharmacies provided at that time.
Rina Shah, Walgreens group vice president of pharmacy operations

Shah, group vice president of pharmacy operations at Walgreens, started off by saying that community-based pharmacists were in the front lines of fighting back against the pandemic, and that has created momentum and enhanced the relationship with both the public and private sectors.

“As I reflect on this past year, it’s been pretty incredible,” she said. “I think our industry has been relied on by many, including the government, but also our customers and our patients. From the beginning of the pandemic, community-based pharmacies were looked to as being a resource at the very beginning to help support an essential item and being able to provide much-needed essential medication, especially as people were really trying to lock down and trying to contain this virus.”

Yet the pharmacy also became a much-needed educational source for consumers. “All of our pharmacists were answering questions on a day-to-day basis and the government relied on us to play that source,” she said “We were an essential worker. I think at that moment, in that March, April, May timeframe, when everything was all heated up, when we didn’t really even know much about the virus, we realized the importance that our pharmacies provided at that time. It made it very clear to ourselves, our customers and to the government that they could rely on us.”

The experience, as well as the partnerships developed during the pandemic, will help Walgreens into the future, Shah said. “I would say it’s a partnership and we don’t do it alone,” she said. “Many of the times I’m picking up the phone, calling many of the people that are on the panel here today, as well as our distribution supply chain partners. We all worked together to help support that. When we get into vaccinations, I’m really excited that we’ve developed these relationships and ways of working together, so that we can continue to build on the foundation that we’ve been able to establish.”

We were able to really show the public and the government that not only do we have the footprint to provide these services, but we’ve got the infrastructure, we’ve got the clinical knowledge, we’ve got the operational prowess in the system to really make a difference here.
Ryan Rumbarger, CVS Pharmacy vice president of store operations

Rumbarger, senior vice president of retail store operations at CVS Pharmacy, said he will use the “craziness” of 2020 as a learning experience and an opportunity to leverage the momentum and the credibility developed with consumers and the government. 

“I think the silver lining for me is this is a year that ended up being a proving ground for what we’ve been saying all along, which is retail pharmacy can and should play a major role in community health care,” he said. “We were there from day one on the front lines, whether it was at rapid testing sites that we set up inside of one or two weeks, and then moving on to our drive-thru testing, which we have in over 4,000 stores now. We were able to really show the public and the government that not only do we have the footprint to provide these services, but we’ve got the infrastructure, we’ve got the clinical knowledge, we’ve got the operational prowess in the system to really make a difference here.

“We’ve talked for years about pharmacies being providers. We’ve talked for years about pharmacies providing more service and expanding our role. What we’ve been thinking a lot about is how do we leverage the credibility we’ve built and the great work that we’ve all done to move that forward and not only provide the services, but get paid fairly for the services that we provide. It’s been an exciting year and one we’ll all look back and be really proud of, but one we will be happy to put behind us.”

There is collective power in the fact that every single person is working on this panel hand in hand to ensure that we are able to distribute the vaccine. 
Samantha Hoye, Cardinal Health vice president of marketing strategy, transformation and execution

Samantha Hoye, vice president of marketing strategy transformation and execution at Cardinal Health, discussed how proud she and her team were when they were able to provide aid and products to emergency hospitals during the first days of the pandemic. And, she is equally proud of how the industry is working with each other.

“We are working together here,” Hoye said. “You think about the work that’s happening with the CDC federal pharmacy partnership strategy to get vaccines out and how we’re all working with Operation Warp Speed within the government. There is collective power in the fact that every single person is working on this panel hand in hand to ensure that we are able to distribute the vaccine. 

“I can tell you personally, at Cardinal, that is our mission. Our mission is we get up and we talk about, wow, this is a lot of work. It is to really help the pharmacies get to that next level. I think there’s something that we should all reflect back on and be proud of the fact that despite the competitive boundaries, we’re working together to help in a situation that I hope to God we never have another pandemic in my lifetime.”

We need to take advantage of the value that we’ve illustrated to our legislators and run with this so that we can have broad authority across the entire nation for things such as test and treat, initiation of therapy on certain protocol drugs, immunizations down to age 3, regardless of the state that you’re in.
Craig Norman, H-E-B senior vice president of pharmacy

Like the other panelists, Norman, senior vice president of pharmacy at H-E-B, said that the pandemic proved, again, the importance of the pharmacy to their own companies and to the consumer, who visits them 12 times more, on average, each year than they might see their primary care providers.

“Especially here in Texas, we saw a tremendous number of providers literally closing up shop in the March, April and May timeframe,” he said. “The pharmacy was the one place that was open and accessible. In our H-E-B stores, we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of people walking through our doors every day, and the amount of questions and the amount of things that we were able to do to help our customers and help them best understand what they were dealing with, what they should be concerned with, and in keeping them on their most important medication therapy.”

What will he take from this experience? “We need to take advantage of the value that we’ve illustrated to our legislators, and run with this so that we can have broad authority across the entire nation for things such as test and treat, initiation of therapy on certain protocol drugs, immunizations down to age 3, regardless of the state that you’re in,” Norman said. “These are our opportunities as we go forward. 

“I’m really looking forward to seeing the profession develop within the next couple of years. We’re going to make light-years of improvement. I’ve been in the profession 37 years now. Things that we were talking about back then are now starting to come to fruition. This is really the opportunity for all of us to jump in as more concerned and more viable participants in the healthcare system.”

I think we saw firsthand during this pandemic that our pharmacists were running into the fire to take care of their patients

Rusk, vice president of pharmacy at Publix, said the pandemic is playing a huge role in leveraging the role of technology and other tools to build a better business operation and enhance the relationship with customers. 

“I think the pandemic really became this accelerant, to be perfectly honest. It was this opportunity to really start to leverage things like technology that we’ve been using all along. We will leverage our central-fill facility quite often. Frankly, that investment was critical for us during this pandemic. We want our pharmacists to be customer facing. I think we saw firsthand during this pandemic that our pharmacists were running into the fire to take care of their patients. If it wasn’t for some of these technological investments that we’ve made over the years, I think it would have been really, really challenging,” he said.

“I think those technological advancements that we’ve made over the years clearly allowed us to shine at a time when so many others were really depending on the pharmacy to be there and help them.”

What I saw in this pandemic is pharmacies immediately became a sort of hub for their local community. From our perspective, what we heard a lot from the folks that we serve is they felt safe going to their pharmacy.
Alisha Mecier, eHealth vice president of business development

Jhaveri turned the discussion to technology and how it really saved the day across many aspects of society, including retail, asking Mecier, eHealth’s vice president of business development, her opinion. 

“What I saw in this pandemic is pharmacies immediately became a sort of hub for their local community,” she said. “From our perspective, what we heard a lot from the folks that we serve is they felt safe going to their pharmacy. I think that says a lot about the service and the support that each of the pharmacies provided across the country.”

Specifically, she said that technology played a huge role in contactless shopping. “Through our tools and through our technology, how do we help those seniors and folks get into the right plan, make sure they understand their plan and make sure they know that they’re covered on COVID types of services, and really connect them into their current pharmacy?

“You know, my viewpoint is we will still be able to serve from a contactless perspective. A lot of your third-party technology relationships that pharmacies use will be helpful. But the pharmacy really has now established itself as that hub. We said at eHealth that patient care and patient services are going to happen within the pharmacy.”

We have to figure out what [Amazon] can’t do. They don’t want to do immunizations. How do we really use this opportunity to fight them? 
Jeff Key, president of PioneerRx

Key, president of PioneerRx, said that Amazon is still the 800-lb. elephant in the room, particularly when it comes to contactless retailing. “Amazon does that well,” he said. “They are quick, accurate, inexpensive and convenient. We have to figure out what they can’t do. They don’t want to do immunizations. How do we really use this opportunity to fight [Amazon]? 

He also said that many companies that tried telehealth ran into trouble when they were unable to offer patients what they wanted or needed. Yet, technology could even the playing field for retailers and the pharmacy. “A lot of people who telehealth ran into trouble. How do I get a strep test? How do I get these types of testings?” he said

“We’ve got to figure out where that thin ice is and where Amazon doesn’t want to be,” he said. “I think in that way the pandemic was kind of a sour patch. You know, it’s kind of got a good side and a bad side. The bad side is more people took on telehealth. The good side is that the world started to see the value of pharmacy. Now, we have got to leverage that positive side as we take on this giant in this big battle.”

The pharmacists spend 60% of their time on the phone and filling prescriptions, and really not dealing with that direct patient care. Software that drives pharmacy automation really takes that burden off the pharmacists.
Tom Utech, iA chief product officer

Utech, chief product officer at iA, also said that automation could help free up the pharmacist to spend more time working directly with the consumer. “The pharmacists spend 60% of their time on the phone and filling prescriptions, and really not dealing with that direct patient care,” he said. “Software that drives pharmacy automation really takes that burden off the pharmacists.”

Walgreens’ Shah also addressed this issue. Noting that technology has helped her chain more closely engage with consumers, as well as keep tabs on their needs, she said the future looks bright. 

“When we think of what the future of pharmacy could look like, it really creates this omnichannel experience where our team does not have to be tethered to a location and they can actually be much more agile on that,” she said. “The second piece is our customer experience. I think it’s been really great to see technology at the forefront of that. Convenience has always been something that’s important to a patient, regardless if it’s health care or it’s not.”

With the Internet, consumers want answers right away. “From our standpoint, we need to connect differently with our patients more than what we’ve done in the past,” Shah said. “It’s a combination of physical and digital assets that combine in order for us to deliver that. That’s what led us to having pharmacy chat, virtual pharmacy engagement, so that we can have this type of interaction with the patient when they’re at home, offering convenient solutions so that we can counsel the patient over the phone and get their medication delivered to their house or when they come into the pharmacy.”