New solutions for health system in crisis

The nation’s health system is critically short of front-line doctors and in dire need of new solutions. Walgreens is ready to step into that breach.

“The public is demanding that someone fill that role,” said Jeff Kang, M.D., SVP health and wellness services and solutions.

“With more than 27,000 pharmacists, we want to move away from just filling prescriptions  Our community pharmacists are a precious resource and can be part of the solution,” he said.

Kang joined Walgreens last fall after serving as chief medical officer at Cigna. He is board-certified 
in internal medicine and geriatrics, and also was chief clinical officer at the Health Care Financing Administration (now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) from 1998 to 2002.

As Walgreens expands the repertoire of disease management, chronic care and preventive health services its pharmacists and Take Care Clinic nurse practitioners can provide — and transforms its stores into “destinations for health and daily living” — the chain already is well along in its evolution from traditional drug store to something very different, Kang said. The company has become a source of health services and solutions for payers, providers and patients in desperate need of more convenient and cost-effective access to care.

“Five or 10 years ago, our purpose was to fill prescriptions as fast and conveniently as possible,” Kang pointed out. “From an organization standpoint, we’re now very clear about our purpose, and it’s fundamentally to help our customers get, stay and live well." Walgreens, he added, is working “to position our clinicians and pharmacists as an extension of the physician’s office. “We’re not seeking to substitute for the physician. The reality, though, is that in this current market, … they’re overwhelmed. Our nurse practitioners and pharmacists can complement that physician care.”

How? By “investing in consumers’ health and wellness” by “helping them live and stay well with prevention, screenings and behavioral risk-factor modification,” he said.

“About two-thirds of the diseases in the United States are driven by four behaviors: lack of exercise, diet, smoking and stress. So if you deal with those four risk factors, you could create a lot of health savings.”

Walgreens, Kang said, can play a role in helping Americans reduce those risk factors.

The accelerating adoption of health information technology and electronic patient health records, he noted, also is putting that collaborative care model within reach.

Call it the commercial version of health reform. Walgreens is doing its part to force the healthcare system to break with the past and abandon a century-old model. “Everyone is guilty of designing processes in a provider-centric fashion. So we’ve developed a clinician-centric system at the convenience of the clinician,” Kang said. For instance, he said, “you go to a doctor’s office, and it’s all built around the doctor’s schedule and the workflow.”

Walgreens, he said, is pushing to replace that model with one that puts the patient at the center of the picture. The future network of care providers — including physician practices, clinics, health plans, and pharmacy and wellness retailers like Walgreens — should be built around the patient and should adapt to his or her needs with services that are more convenient and accessible. And if it follows the concept of medical homes advanced by the health-reform law passed in 2010, Kang added, “the home should be where the patient is.”

“The technology is there now, and what it’s going to take to change that is for consumers to demand a system that’s patient-centric,” he asserted. “What the consumer wants is an integrated system that’s coordinated on his or her behalf, and convenient to him or her.”