How Retail Pharmacies Are Embracing Digital Health

MARCH 08, 2015

The use of health technology is slowly making its way into retail pharmacy.

While there has been an increased focus on the use of apps and wearables in health care, retail pharmacies are now looking for new ways to use technological developments to address the changes in care delivery in the community setting. Several companies are considering areas in which they can adapt their practices, and potential opportunities are coming down the road for pharmacies.

CVS
Some big news last year involved CVS opening up an incubator for start-ups in Boston, according to the Boston Globe. Chief Digital Officer Brian Tilzer sees this as a great opportunity to identify early-stage companies that can impact how CVS functions.

In addition, CVS may open stores to test the start-ups' products in the upcoming year in New York City and Menlo Park, California. Investing in these spaces and embracing a start-up mentality may demonstrate that large retail chains are seeking to reinvent themselves.

It will be interesting to see how these incubators work out and whether they will capitalize on CVS's recent investments and acquisitions in the last year, such as the company's launch for specialty prescriptions drugs called Specialty Connect, or its interest in infusion programs with the Coram acquisition.

Walgreens
While Walgreens received a lot of attention for embracing Apple's mobile payment system, it has also embarked on several projects that could have long-term ramifications for pharmacy-patient interactions.

One of the biggest developments is through Walgreens partnership with Theranos, a company that is making big waves in blood-based testing. Theranos has developed technology that only requires a few drops of blood for lab processing, rather than regular blood draws. Walgreens has already opened several sites with Theranos in Arizona, though limited tests are currently offered.

There is ongoing debate about the full integration of Theranos in the broad public and whether testing requires approval by a prescriber. Nonetheless, this is a topic of major concern for expanding health services in the pharmacy environment. NACDS and other organizations have been covering where pharmacists fall into the realm of point-of-care testing, and Theranos and other upcoming companies should be of interest to community pharmacists everywhere.

Another area that recently made waves was Walgreens’ partnership with PatientsLikeMe, an online patient health community, to help patients understand side effects of medications through the Walgreens Health Dashboard, which patients can now sign up for. What is most interesting about this venture is its crowdsourcing nature, which helps patients see what others think about the medications they are taking and  explore similar or alternative options to discuss with their providers.

Walgreens is no stranger to partnering with these types of companies, as they recently partnered with Glow, a San Francisco start-up focused on helping women with preventing pregnancy or conceiving. Walgreens has integrated its prescription refill system with the Glow app to help women refill their birth control, reduce missed doses, and hopefully make their lives easier.

Lastly, Walgreens has embraced digital health through its Balance Rewards Program, encouraging patients to engage in their own health while being rewarded. This year, Walgreens has partnered with Qualcomm Life to expand the program's coverage and increase its functionality.

Rite Aid
Of all the major retail pharmacy chains, Rite Aid is probably the furthest behind in digital health. Although it was the first retail pharmacy to partner with Text4Baby, a company that helps young mothers get free information on health decisions for their health and soon-to-arrive child, Rite Aid has been relatively quiet in this space.

The only other area of interest is Rite Aid's innovation challenge to redevelop pharmacy, which is ongoing yet unavailable to the public until March 31, 2015.

Final Thoughts
With the insurance marketplace in flux, rapid disruption in technology, and movement towards outpatient care, pharmacy has the opportunity to change significantly in the community setting. The big players in retail pharmacy recognize this and are looking to capitalize on such developments in order to maximize patient care, engagement, and future financial security in a competitive marketplace.



Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Dy Aungst, PharmD, is an associate professor of pharmacy practice at MCPHS University. He graduated from Wilkes University Nesbitt School of Pharmacy and completed a PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Residency at St. Luke's University Hospital, and then a Clinical Geriatric Fellowship at MCPHS University. He is passionate about the rise of technology in health care and its application to pharmacy. He has published primarily on the role of mobile technology and mHealth, and made multiple national and international presentations on those topics. He blogs at TheDigitalApothecary.com, and you can find him on Twitter @TDAungst.
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