The drugstore of the future will be more than just a store.
CVS is hiring nurse practitioners. Walgreen’s is hiring health guides. Rite Aid is hiring health coaches. All are training pharmacists to build stronger relationships with customers.
The nation’s big pharmacy chains are transforming their businesses beyond just selling drugs and health products to providing health services — and even coordinating care with doctors and hospitals.
Pharmacy operators are trying to capitalize on consumers’ tendencies to visit neighborhood drugstores more often than the doctor by offering a broadening array of services, from vaccinations against the flu to urgent care for sprained ankles to management of chronic diseases.
“The health of our country is not good,” said Nimesh Jhaveri, divisional vice president of health innovations for Walgreen Co. in Deerfield, Ill. “We have to play a role in that.”
This growing role for pharmacies in health care delivery was highlighted Wednesday when the parent of the CVS chain said it was changing its corporate name to CVS Health from CVS Caremark Corp.
CVS is quickly expanding its retail health division, MinuteClinic, and now has clinics in 860 of its CVS stores nationwide, including 49 in Massachusetts.
Pharmacies say they are a low-cost option for consumers looking for basic care.
In May, CVS said that it would coordinate care with Lahey Health of Burlington, Baystate Health of Springfield, and other systems by sharing information about patient visits and prescriptions through electronic health records.
Pharmacies are adapting their business models as traditional health care providers and insurers face pressure to control costs. Pharmacy operators say they are a convenient, low-cost option for consumers looking for quick, basic care. Additionally, they say, they can further cut costs in the system by playing a bigger role in prodding patients to take their prescription medications.
Millions of Americans fail to take their medications properly, costing the system $290 billion a year in added medical expenses, according to the Network for Excellence in Health Innovation, a Cambridge research institute.
Pharmacists who work for CVS, for example, spend more time counseling patients on medications in person, by phone, and with text alerts, said Michael DeAngelis, a company spokesman.
In April, Rite Aid Corp., of Camp Hill, Pa., acquired Boston-based Health Dialog Services Corp., a health coaching provider, for an undisclosed sum. Now Rite Aid is offering coaches at some of its stores to help patients manage chronic conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes, lung disease, and congestive heart failure. Health coaches, working with physicians, help patients carry out personalized care plans.
These coaches aren’t available in the Boston area yet, but Rite Aid will expand the program nationally if the pilot is successful, said Robert Thompson, Rite Aid’s executive vice president of pharmacy.
“We see ourselves as a retail health care company,” Thompson said.
The expansion of pharmacies into health care services, however, has not been without controversy. Former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and some health care advocates vigorously opposed for-profit drugstores opening clinics, arguing they would undermine the city’s network of neighborhood health services.
Menino’s successor, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, has not taken a position on the issue. “Convenient care clinics can provide valuable consumer service for small medical issues,” Walsh spokeswoman Kate Norton said, “but there is a real concern about the same continuity of care that an individual may receive from a neighborhood health center or from a primary care physician.”
Pharmacy companies are poised to gain business through some of the trends underway in the health care industry. Nationally, millions of new patients have entered the system through insurance obtained under the Affordable Care Act. There is also a shortage of primary care physicians in the United States, pushing people to find care in other settings, such as pharmacies.
And as Americans age, they will need more medications and care — another opportunity for pharmacies to gain and retain customers. The $257 billion pharmacy industry is expected to grow 2.6 percent annually over the next five years, according to the New York research firm IBISWorld.
Pharmacies are “going to be a health care destination,” said Kathleen Jaeger, senior vice president at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, a trade group in Arlington, Va. “Neighborhood care is going to be a mainstay in our health care system.”