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How traditional pharmacies can survive the Amazon threat

By Vik Panda, STAT, on 12/13/2018

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.