Walgreens Wants to Be Pharmacy's Face of Digital Health

Walgreens is slowly pushing the limits of digital health strategies in the retail pharmacy environment.

The annual conference for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) is a time for many leaders and innovators in the realm of informatics and associated health technologies come together to share ideas and concepts. At the HIMSS 2015 annual meeting in Chicago, there were several interesting developments from Walgreens worth knowing about for the future.

Walgreens president Alex Gourlay opened up the keynote session for HIMSS, where he expounded upon Walgreens' stance as one of the largest pharmacy companies in the United States and its ability to leverage digital health as a means to expand business and patient engagement.

In the midst of drastic changes occurring in pharmacy at large, such as the rise of retail clinics and the expansion of in-pharmacy lab testing, Walgreens sees digital health as a way to improve the overall pharmacy environment.

Walgreens has already demonstrated its ability to embrace mobile devices to improve the interactions of patients with pharmacy services. The company's mobile app allows users to drastically reduce the time to refill their medications compared with traditional means (such as phoning the pharmacy), schedule their medications for adherence reminders, and chat with pharmacists.

More recent developments include:

  • Balance Rewards Program integration into employer-sponsored plans, allowing members to gain points and rewards and then spend them. Currently, UnitedHealthcare in Arizona and Illinois is integrating this feature. Corporate wellness programs have become a large interest in the past few years, and with the advent of wearables, this is one feature employers are looking to integrate into their programs.
  • WebMD Digital Health Coaching partnership, which allows Walgreens' members to access information and get advice related to their health. This partnership is slowly producing in-store recommendations and advertisements placed on shelves.
  • Integration with patient-reported drug responses through partnership with PatientsLikeMe, where Walgreens members can see how others have reacted to similar treatment.
  • Expanded services through Walgreens' mobile app and increasing availability of pharmacy communication via the app service. This includes partnership with MDLive to offer video consultations with physicians through telemedicine services, which are currently being offered to customers in Michigan and California with future expansion. Walgreens also hopes to launch an Apple Watch app later in 2015.
  • Digital Health Advisor for diabetes management in partnership with WebMD.

Walgreens is actively embracing a digital health strategy, but how the competition will react remains to be seen. CVS has also shown interest in developing a similar digital health strategy, and it is in the process of opening innovation centers and embracing start-ups.

Walgreens has made great headway, however, so many other retail pharmacies may just wait to see consumer responses before mimicking any possible successes. The key area will be which companies Walgreens chooses to partner with, and how big of a claim they want in the digital health market before others jump in.

This article was collaboratively written with Leonard Ming Wai Tam, a 2015 PharmD Candidate at MCPHS University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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