Walgreens has long been working to combat the HIV epidemic. In addition to specially training its pharmacists to offer compassionate and confidential HIV care with a focus on treatment as prevention, the company also focuses on HIV testing and participates in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Ready, Set, PrEP program, with the ability to dispense pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP medications from all of its pharmacies nationwide. Drug Store News caught up with Brad McElya, Walgreens director of specialty health solutions, to talk about the company’s HIV efforts and what they have looked like throughout the pandemic.
Drug Store News: Walgreens has done a lot of work around making HIV care and testing accessible. How does the overall accessibility of pharmacists play a role in this?
Brad McElya: As a pharmacist myself, I take great pride in the accessibility of pharmacists as touchpoints within our communities. I know that the relationships that I've been able to build with patients are key to really making an impact on a patient's life. The accessibility of our pharmacists is two pronged. There’s accessibility in terms of geographical location as we have a pharmacy team with expertise in HIV embedded in neighborhoods nationwide. And then there’s accessibility in terms of patients feeling comfortable in approaching pharmacists, which is something that we are committed to as we center our pharmacists training around being approachable.
We also make sure that we're equipping our pharmacists with resources to be able to address the questions that a patient may have. Maybe they're not able to afford their medication, so we equip pharmacists with various programs where, like savings programs or Ready, Set, PrEP in order to specifically address the patient's needs.
DSN: What role does education play in combating HIV and what is Walgreen’s role in educating patients about the epidemic?
BM: When it comes to HIV, there are some nuances. We know that, for instance, 1 in 7 individuals in the United States do not know that they are living with HIV. That's why we're really trying to increase the focus around HIV testing, because if a patient does not know their HIV status, then they can't get into treatment or they wouldn't be able to take PrEP as it is one of the requirements. Secondly, when it comes to PrEP, many patients may not be aware of what they need to do in order to take their healthcare into their own hands. It’s up to us to help inform patients that they can take this medication and it can actually prevent them from acquiring HIV. In our ‘treatment as prevention approach,’ I believe that we have a key role in helping patients afford their medications, to remain adherent, knowing that if we do that, then we can help the patient's viral load be suppressed and therefore they would not transmit HIV to another individual.
DSN: How has Walgreens worked to make its HIV resources available safely for patients throughout the pandemic?
BM: One of the things that we've increased our focus on is making sure that we're not losing sight of the HIV epidemic as we're fighting a pandemic. It’s really a matter of meeting patients and our community-based partners where they are. With testing, we had to pivot last year. Normally, we partner with Greater Than AIDS every year around National HIV Testing Day as an opportunity for individuals to have a free, confidential HIV test in a private room. And due to COVID-19, we weren't going to be able to do that, but we still wanted to help patients get tested. And that was where we were able to make a donation to Greater than AIDS as part of National HIV Testing Day in 2020 to distribute over 10,000 self-test kits so that patients could still be aware of their HIV status and receive information about PrEP and the Ready, Set, PrEP program. We're also coming together with our community-based partners and really trying to meet the need for the country and specifically patients that could be at risk of HIV.
As we move forward, I want the conversation around HIV to really be infused with hope, because I do believe that we are at this key moment in time in which the practice of pharmacy can actually help end an epidemic. For those who wish to learn more, visit walgreens.com/HIV.