Pharmacy Times

Supermarkets Provide Super Opportunities for Pharmacists

Author: Barbara Sax

Ms. Sax is a freelance writer based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


Pharmacy is an important part of nearly every supermarket chain, and its importance is growing. According to a recent survey from the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a supermarket industry trade association, 71% of supermarkets currently dispense prescriptions; 10 years ago, only about half of US supermarkets included a pharmacy.

On average, supermarket pharmacies fill 126 prescriptions a day, and that number grew 4% from 2003 to 2007. Supermarkets fill 14% of all retail prescriptions dispensed.

Clearly, the supermarket industry is committed to pharmacy. The industry’s position is clear from the array of patient services chains are offering. Nearly half of all supermarket companies offer health seminars and disease management services. Three quarters of all supermarket companies routinely offer flu shots and immunization programs. In the past few years, supermarkets have also begun to add in-store clinics to their stores. All of these programs draw consumers to the pharmacy department.

Leveraging Food, Nutrition, and Pharmacy

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of supermarket pharmacy is the ability of supermarkets to blend preventive, nutrition-focused care with medication treatment and health management programs.

With patients more focused than ever before on health and wellness, the supermarket pharmacy is perfectly positioned to be a one-stop destination for patients to meet their nutrition and medication needs.

“Supermarket pharmacists are uniquely positioned to help shoppers understand their food, nutrition, and medication needs,” said Cathy Polley, vice president of pharmacy services at FMI. “They play an important role in our nation’s health care system, because they are among the most accessible of all health care providers. Supermarket retailers realize that they have an unmatched depth and breadth of product offerings, nutritional information, in-store pharmacists, and often health clinics that sets them apart.”

Polley said that by creating cross-departmental teams both at the corporate and in-store level, supermarkets have begun to maximize their customers’ ability to make healthy lifestyle choices. The health and wellness initiatives that many supermarkets are undertaking are anchored in the pharmacy, and they allow the pharmacists who work in those settings to more fully serve their patients.

“It creates a practice environment that is attractive to today’s pharmacists who want to help shoppers sort through health and nutrition information, so they can make informed food choices that complement their prescribed medications,” she said. “More and more, we see our members’ pharmacists and nutritionists teaming up to offer store tours and cooking classes for customers with specific disease states such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. We are delighted that this is the trend overall.”

Dan Ferrara, director of pharmacy operations at Wegmans Food Markets, said that, when it comes to a total wellness position, there is an “obvious opportunity for a synergy” between the total store and the pharmacy department.

Broader Counseling Opportunities

“By practicing in a food market environment, we can not only help our patient population with managing their medication therapy, but also offer healthy meal solutions associated with their disease state,” he said. “As we looked outside the walls of pharmacy, we quickly saw health and wellness on our store shelves.”

The Rochester, New York–based, 73-store chain is known for its stellar customer service, and the pharmacy department is no exception. “We know that the role of the pharmacist is shifting from production to wellness. Our health and wellness focus allows us to educate our pharmacists on everything from cereal to frozen foods, so that our pharmacists are patient health care specialists who are able to forge value-added relationships with their patients,” said Ferrara. “The end result is a more informed pharmacist that can give customers the tools to make choices that will positively affect their health. Our business model dictates it, our customers expect it, and the environment we provide allows our pharmacists to live it.”

That environment is part of what has landed Wegmans on the Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for the past 12 years. “Every decision we make as it relates to pharmacy revolves around facilitating a customer-pharmacist interaction,” said Ferrara. “From our physical layout that fosters ease in accessibility to the pharmacist to our use of central services that frees our store team up to offer the personal service our customers deserve.”

Wegmans is not alone in its commitment to getting the pharmacist out from behind the counter and face-to-face with patients. Supervalu, the Franklin Park, Illinois– based supermarket retailer has been a leader in the industry’s movement to offer nontraditional pharmacy services to patients.

In addition to medication therapy management and flu shot and immunization programs, pharmacists in the chain’s 900 in-store pharmacies provide a range of diabetes care services. “As the trend to deliver these services continues to grow in our industry, patients are becoming more aware of the nontraditional services pharmacists can offer,” said Nikki Price, Supervalu’s director of pharmacy education. “We are always looking for new and innovative ways to help patients stay healthy and are currently testing services focused on weight loss and Alzheimer’s disease.” Price said that every pharmacist at the chain’s stores has an opportunity to offer clinical services to patients. “We see this as the direction community pharmacy is going,” she said.

With many locations, supermarket retailers can easily form partnerships with employer groups by providing clinical services to help treat health conditions. Kroger has been offering a Clinical Services program at its Cincinnati-area pharmacies that allows patients to schedule appointments with pharmacists to receive counseling on diabetes, smoking cessation, food and nutrition, weight management, and medication management. The program has been so successful that it is being expanded to the chain’s stores in Kentucky and Arizona.

“Our pharmacists tell us that they enjoy doing more than just dispensing medication,” said Pat Achoe, pharmacy category manager at Kroger. “Our health screening program, immunization program, and our Clinical Services programs provide pharmacists opportunities to do more and to make a difference in their communities.”

Because pharmacy is strategically essential to food retailers, companies are supporting their pharmacy departments with the best technology available.

FMI’s Polley reports that automation and robotic dispensing have allowed pharmacists and technicians to process orders more quickly and spend more time with customers. In addition, the majority of supermarket pharmacies (nearly 93%) were ready to receive electronic prescriptions at the close of 2008.