Are traditional pharmacies doomed to the same fate as Borders, Blockbuster, and Sears? The threat is real.
Companies like Capsule and PillPack are redesigning the pharmacy for the digital age. In addition to making it effortless to get prescription medications, these disruptors are bent on cutting out the physical store. This summer, Amazon bought PillPack, bringing heft, customer-service expertise, and gargantuan corporate ambition to the fight.
Yet I believe there is hope for traditional pharmacies — at least for those that adapt and innovate. Brick-and-mortar stores can offer value not available from app-and-delivery businesses. Some of that value is already being harnessed by traditional pharmacies, but most isn’t. Here are some ideas for how pharmacies can serve their customers better and remain relevant.
Capitalize on live pharmacists
One innate advantage of the physical pharmacy is the licensed pharmacist herself. Sure, disruptors offer the opportunity to communicate remotely with a pharmacist. But when you need answers to complex health and medicine questions, texting or chatting doesn’t always compare to interacting face to face with a human in a white coat.
That said, there are plenty of ways to improve the in-person experience. Many pharmacists seem harried, bogged down by mundane tasks such as processing insurance or ringing up customers. A better workflow could free pharmacists to capitalize on the value they bring. When there’s a line in the pharmacy, why not have insurance handled by other dedicated employees?
Customer-relations training could also help make pharmacists more approachable. Just as Trader Joe’s cultivates a friendly “crew,” pharmacies could help pharmacists be less like technicians and more like caregivers.
Reposition the pharmacist as a proactive health care coach
Traditional pharmacies could do more than just improve the in-person experience. One way is to reposition the pharmacist from pill sorter and multitasking question responder to genuine health care coach.
Just as your doctor is an expert in your condition, your pharmacist is an expert in your medications. In fact, the pharmacist is a crucial member of the care team, but one who often isn’t called in to play to his or her full capability. With soaring deductibles leaving patients without care, there is a huge opportunity for community-based pharmacists to play greater roles. They see the faces of their customers. They talk to the dad with two kids running through the store who is picking up pediatric medicine for a chronic condition that will require close management. Pharmacists can spot things at the counter — in the real world where most care actually happens. Doctors don’t typically see this and can’t help with it.
To transform patient interactions, pharmacies could deploy software similar to the data screen of a specialist in a well-run call center, listing a patient’s current treatments and suggesting questions or advice. Their face-to-face empathy could be bolstered by services that personalize calls, emails, or texts to check on treatment effectiveness, extending the pharmacist’s reach.
To streamline access, pharmacists could use the kind of scheduling apps that some banks use for branch-manager schedules. And providing a protected location for consumers to meet with a pharmacist could also help with privacy issues. Just as you don’t want to talk through your family’s finances at a bank teller’s window, you don’t want to run through your medical history at the pharmacy counter with a line of customers behind you listening to what you say.
Most importantly, pharmacists can provide proactive advice on how to properly take medications, especially those that are injected or inhaled. You would be shocked by how often pulmonologists learn that their patients don’t know how to use an inhaler correctly.
According to the Annals of Internal Medicine, not taking prescription medications as prescribed costs Americans up to $290 billion per year, sometimes landing patients in the hospital — or worse.
Among chronic diseases, asthma and COPD impose an economic burden of nearly $106 billion on the health care system. Adherium, the company I am part of, has been working on an inhaler called Hailie that tracks when asthma or COPD patients use their inhalers, reminds them when they miss a dose, and displays their usage on a smartphone app. A live, community-based pharmacist is well-placed to help patients see the full benefits of such devices.
Capitalize on location
Digital pharmacies are betting that they can be nimbler and more convenient. In response, traditional pharmacies should capitalize on the one feature unavailable to their digital competitors: a physical location with pharmacists who are ready to help. Even Amazon is dabbling with physical locations that can harness the store to deliver facets of care that require in-person interaction with a provider.
Some pharmacies are seizing this opportunity. A common example is providing flu shots — a convenient solution for patients that reduces the burden on doctors and hospitals. Walmart pharmacies are taking the idea a step further, teaming up with Quest Diagnostics to offer lab services in some locations. Walmart pharmacies also hold Walmart Wellness Day, which includes free screenings and other health resources.
CVS and Walgreens are also expanding their health care offerings. Walgreens is lobbying states to let them administer vaccines. Such services boost store traffic, which is good for the bottom line, and can’t be administered by PillPack or Capsule’s delivery teams.
Beat disruptors at their own game
A final strategy is to make the disruptors redundant by matching their competitive advantages before customers change their habits. This may mean offering free, fast delivery, which should be feasible for companies with national networks. It may also mean sorting pills into PillPack-like convenient daily-dose packets; this technology isn’t unique to PillPack. Things that digital rivals don’t do, including over-the-counter products, can also be leveraged. It will no doubt mean creating a customer experience that makes people happy to be doing business in brick-and-mortar pharmacies.
There’s no doubt that disruption will prompt a shakeout. Traditional pharmacies will either see their market share tumble, or Amazon and the upstarts will fizzle out — it’s likely going to be the former unless traditional pharmacies evolve. Pharmacies big and small sit still at their peril. The survivors will be those that recognize the need to change and find ways to make themselves more appealing.
Vik Panda is vice president of marketing at Adherium, a digital health technology company focused on the suboptimal use of medication in managing chronic diseases.