Walgreens is building the ‘pharmacy of the future’

The company wants its pharmacists to do more than just fill prescriptions.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 3 min read

Rina Shah has been working at Walgreens her entire career—close to 25 years—but this year she got a shiny new title: vice president of pharmacy of the future.

The role was created as part of what CEO Rosalind Brewer said in Walgreens’ latest earnings call is the company’s top priority: creating a consumer-centric healthcare company. The retail pharmacy giant essentially wants to free up its pharmacists’ time so they can go from filling prescriptions all day to engaging more directly with patients.

Shah is heading up these efforts, and she sat down with Healthcare Brew to talk about what Walgreens sees when it pictures the pharmacy of the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When you say Walgreens wants to create the pharmacy of the future, what exactly does that mean, and what changes come with that?

When we talk about the future of pharmacy, it’s to leverage our pharmacists in a much more data-driven, effective way to lower costs in the system. For example, in certain states where there’s higher pollen counts and pollution, we’re seeing higher emergency room visits because of asthma. We can educate people on the difference between a rescue inhaler and a maintenance inhaler—and how they can understand triggers—and ultimately impact lower emergency room visits because of that.

What are the problems you’re trying to solve in this role?

Prior to the pandemic hitting, we had been asked by providers and payers and other organizations for our pharmacists to do more. We were being asked to provide testing services and in-depth consultations with patients. However, our operating model didn’t really account for that. Our pharmacists were busy doing many more administrative tasks. We made the decision that we needed to transform the model, which meant really freeing up the capacity of our pharmacists so they could spend time with patients delivering care, as it’s always intended to be. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been investing in micro-fulfillment to free up this capacity.

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What are micro-fulfillment centers, and when did Walgreens start opening them?

We opened up our first micro-fulfillment center about a year and a half ago, and the intent of these centers is that they’re staffed with pharmacists and technicians, but we’re leveraging automation and technology and robotics so that we’re much more efficient in being able to fill prescriptions. Once they’re filled, they’re sent back to the pharmacy that the prescription originated from, and then our pharmacists dispense those medications to patients. The pharmacist can then, instead of spending time filling those prescriptions, spend time counseling the patient about that medication.

Walgreens is now considering its pharmacists “health advisers.” Why is that?

To make them a part of the health ecosystem. There’s the pharmacist, the physician, the nurse. There’s an entire community of professionals that are helping patients navigate their health. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all, it really depends on what’s happening with the patient. The intent of “pharmacy of the future” is to leverage our pharmacists to be a part of that team, may it be advising them to navigate that patient through their journey, or directing them to see a physician.

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