Walgreens: Purveyor or Provider?

Walgreens-store

An intriguing question emerged from last week’s merger announcement from Walgreens Boots Alliance and Rite Aid.  Led by CEO Stefano Pessina and his largely European executive team, will Walgreens be purveyor focused on retail sales or provider engaged with a transforming U.S. health care system?

The signals are mixed.  A tea-leaf reading of last week’s investor call suggests Walgreens is destined to be a purveyor, focused on selling products and services.  Today, however, Walgreens announced a big technology move that points to a provider future, closely integrated with payers and providers.

Purveyor or provider?  Read on.

Tobacco:  To Sell or not to Sell

“Are you considering eliminating tobacco,” Barclays Capital analyst Meredith Adler asked Walgreens president Alex Gourley during the investor call as the company fielded questions about earnings and the merger.

Gourley had just praised RiteAid for its new, sales-increasing wellness format, saying it was an opportunity for Walgreens, which also is seeing success with its new health, wellness and beauty positioning.

“It seems pretty clear,” said Adler, explaining her question, “that providers and payers feel uncomfortable working with a retail pharmacy that still sells tobacco.”  In the background was the 2014 tobacco sales halt of CVS Health, which boasts 49 clinical affiliations, including Cleveland Clinic.

Gourley’s answer:  No.

Walgreens would instead continue investing in smoking cessation.  Anyway, he noted, only about three percent of all tobacco sales occur in a drugstore.  He did not pivot to emphasize how Walgreens is working with providers and payers, notwithstanding tobacco sales.

A tea-leaf saying “purveyor”? Perhaps.

Outposts in Seattle

Gourley could easily have drawn the analyst’s attention to a Walgreens announcement just two months previously.  In August, Walgreens and Seattle-based Providence Health & Services launched a new “strategic clinical collaboration.”

Providence will own and operate clinics in 25 Washington and Oregon Walgreens stores under its Providence and Swedish brand names.  The first three will open in early 2016, with the remainder following in two years.

Rite Aid made a similar move in the Seattle market in May when it announced a joint venture between its RediClinic subsidiary and MultiCare Health System.   The joint venture will operate clinics in 11 stores staffed by board certified MultiCare Nurse Practitioners in collaboration with MultiCare affiliated physicians.

Seattle, home to only three CVS stores, will provide a sheltered environment for Walgreens and Rite Aid to test the strategy of developing “deeper and more strategic relationships” with health systems.  In particular, Providence is quite a catch, having directly contracted with Boeing to provide health care for the aircraft maker’s employees.

The EpicCare Connection

However, the nation’s 1,000 CVS MinuteClinics dwarf both Walgreens 400 Healthcare Clinics and Rite Aid’s small number of in-store RediClinics.  Surpassing 25 million patient visits since the opening of its first clinic, CVS says it is opening three new MinuteClinics a week.   Aiming for 1,500 clinics by 2017, CVS is acquiring all of Target’s 1,660 pharmacies and 80 clinics.

CVS is converting all of its MinuteClinics to the market leading EpicCare electronic medical records (EMR) system.  Used broadly across health care, Epic also has strong interoperability with other EMR systems.   This will provide seamless data exchange with most American hospitals.

“EpicCare will help us work more closely with physician practices as part of the medical home team, facilitate co-management of patients, and advance our mission to make health care more accessible, convenient and affordable for Americans,” said MinuteClinic chief medical officer Nancy Gagliano, M.D.

Dr. Patrick Carroll agrees.  Today, the chief medical officer for Walgreens Healthcare Clinics announced the clinics would begin moving to EpicCare early next year.  “As our clinics play an increasingly important role in health care, supporting the health care system, provider practices and patients’ medical homes, care coordination can be critical,” he echoed.

So, a provider future for Walgreens?  It certainly looks like it.  “This will benefit our patients, clinic providers and partners, and serves as an instrumental part of our strategic growth plan [emphasis added],” explained Carroll.

Confusing Signals

However, as recently as May, Walgreens quietly shuttered 35 clinics, a move two former employees described to Crains Chicago Business as signaling “uncertainty whether Walgreens really wants to spend more on primary care and in particular upgrading the clinics’ electronic medical record systems.”   Today’s announcement erases some of that uncertainty, at least with respect to the EMR system.

In Seattle, Walgreens will provide in-store space, overseeing any needed build out.  Providence will be using its own Epic system.  “Patients will experience a seamless patient experience through our existing electronic health record system, providing direct connectivity to the clinics and billing systems, which will ensure better continuity of patient care and collaboration among providers,” said Providence senior vice president of physician services Mike Waters.   Now, Walgreens will be able to connect directly.

Convincing Collaborations

In Seattle, a provider land lord; in Tampa, still a provider.  There, Walgreens partners with a multi-specialty practice, assuming risk in an accountable care organization (ACO), Diagnostic Clinic Walgreens Well Network.  Serving 7,500 patients, the ACO saved $1.5 million or 2% in costs.  However, Walgreens has exited ACO partnerships with Baylor Scott & White in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and New Jersey’s Advocare.  The company continues a clinical affiliation with Baylor Scott & White.

Meanwhile, Walgreens has launched additional collaborations with CHE Trinity Health, a 30-hospital, Michigan-based system, Arizona Priority Care, a unit of California’s Heritage Provider Network, and Mercy Health – Cincinnati.  Leading Trinity Health is former Medicare official Dr. Richard Gilfillan, chair of the Health Care Transformation Task Force; Mercy Health is part of the nation’s largest not for profit health system, Ascension Health; and Arizona Priority Care specializes in accountable care.

In Baltimore, Walgreens has a long-standing relationship with Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM).  The company provides grants for population health research overseen by a joint committee.  Two years ago, it opened a store, including a Healthcare Clinic, adjacent to the JHM campus.  In this case, Walgreens’ board certified nurse practitioners staff the clinic, although they and company pharmacists can work with JHM faculty.

Rite Aid’s Health Alliance program should dovetail nicely with Walgreens provider collaboration initiatives.  The program brings together physicians, pharmacists and special care coaches to provide care and support to individuals with chronic and poly-chronic health conditions, helping them achieve health improvement goals established by their physicians.

Eight provider organizations currently are participating in Health Alliance, which leverages Rite Aid’s population health subsidiary, HealthDialog.  Another 11 reportedly are be interested.  On average, patients participating in the Rite Aid Health Alliance are 36% more adherent to their medications; they have lost an average of 7.7 pounds; they have a 39% reduction in blood pressure; and they have lowered their blood sugar by 36%, reports Drug Store News.

Big Bet on Consumer Technology

Rite Aid is also bringing Cleveland Clinic physicians into some of its Ohio stores via telehealth start up HealthSpot.  Installed in the stores is a kiosk, enclosed for privacy, which includes a video connection with a physician and the capability to take and transmit vital signs to the physician.

Opting for mobile, Walgreens is using the Pager platform, designed by an early Uber architect, to connect customers with physicians.  It also is relying on the MDLive platform for telemedicine, and working with WebMD on a wellness app, and with PatientsLikeMe enabling people to share medication experiences with each other.

Walgreens has been a leader in using technology to engage its customers.  Its app is the third most downloaded retail app in the U.S. and the number one brick and mortar pharmacy app, reports mobihealthnews.  Fourteen million people visit a Walgreens app or website each week and Walgreens fills more than one mobile prescription every second.

Walgreens’ Epic Catch-Up

However, until the EpicCare announcement today, Walgreens lagged in using technology to engage providers.  Its electronic record system could not easily communicate with other systems, forcing stores to use secure fax and email to communicate with physicians and other providers.   That raised serious questions about the future of its provider collaborations and role as a provider.

Now, EpicCare means Walgreens can be more than a purveyor.  It can also be a provider, fully integrated into the new health care.

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