Pharmacy's challenge: Vision and reality

Innovate or stagnate into irrelevance. That’s the message chain pharmacy leaders had for their colleagues at last week’s National Association of Chain Drug Stores’ 2012 Annual Meeting in Palm Beach, Fla.

It’s not a new message. If you’re a community pharmacy professional, you’ve been hearing for years the steadily louder drumbeat for change as the profession and the industry it drives push for a truly central role in a rapidly evolving health system. What’s new is the urgency driving the call for change in 2012, as pharmacy scrambles to define a clear, well-defined role for itself as “the face of neighborhood health care” and the natural ally of the nation’s overburdened primary care physicians.

New NACDS chairman, and Walgreens president and CEO, Greg Wasson and NACDS president and CEO Steve Anderson both issued that call for change at the annual powwow, and never was the vision for pharmacy’s transformation more clearly defined. Anderson urged pharmacy leaders to be “disruptive innovators” by bringing “medication counseling, health education, screenings, vaccinations and disease state management” to U.S. communities. Those services, he added, bring “tremendous value to a healthcare system that needs solutions that are cost-effective, high quality and patient-centric.” (Click here for more.)

Wasson wants the industry to scrap outdated concepts like “front end and back end,” and replace them with a holistic view of “the total store in meeting the wellness needs of our nation.” To succeed, that vision also will mean enlisting suppliers in nothing less than a retail pharmacy paradigm shift, where even traditional front-end categories, such as beauty, photo and greeting cards, are positioned as contributing to some aspect of consumers’ health and wellness — including their emotional wellbeing.

“Today, our product is an outcome — an improved health outcome — that only a face-to-face encounter with a community pharmacist can accomplish,” Walgreens’ CEO said.

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All well and good, and absolutely critical to pharmacy’s long-term viability. As Wasson told NACDS attendees, the forces working to marginalize pharmacy and limit or deemphasize its contributions to a severely stressed U.S. health care system are “pushing us to leverage the true value of community pharmacy and to not allow ourselves to become commoditized.”

The question remains, however, if pharmacists can successfully deliver on this grand vision for pharmacy as the accessible, cost-efficient face of neighborhood health care while they’re coping with an ever-rising tide of prescriptions. Will pharmacy technology and new innovations in workflow, centralized dispensing and workload shifting be enough to offset the growth in script counts and give pharmacists the time to perform advanced medication therapy management, health screenings, a full schedule of immunizations and other clinical and preventive care services? And, equally important, will health plan payers adapt their reimbursement models fast enough to support this growing menu of clinical services as the health system lurches into the new era of accountable care?