Diversifying the Pharmacy Business

September 23, 2020

In the face of increasing industry pressures, independent pharmacies must look to diversify their services to improve the viability of their businesses in today’s challenging environment.

This article was written in partnership with AmerisourceBergen and Good Neighbor Pharmacy.

In the face of increasing industry pressures, independent pharmacies must look to diversify their services to improve the viability of their businesses in today’s challenging environment.

In an interview with Drug Topics®, Jenni Zilka, Group Vice President of Good Neighbor Pharmacy’s (GNP) Field Programs and Services at AmerisourceBergen and Braheim Knight, RPh, Pharmacy Business Coach at AmerisourceBergen, discussed how pharmacies can optimize their business performance and profitability.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has undoubtedly emphasized and accelerated the need for certain clinical services within community pharmacies—and GNP has been working with customers to meet that demand through its Business Coaching program.

“The [GNP] Business Coaching program provides pharmacies with personalized support from an expert who understands the unique needs of their business in a very detail-oriented way,” Knight explained. “The program allows pharmacists to focus their attention and energy on the health of their business….As pharmacy business coaches, we evaluate the precise needs of the pharmacy, we identify areas of opportunity to improve operations, and we create an action plan for success.”

Business coaches work 1-on-1 with pharmacies to identify the right mix of tools and services to match their needs. These offerings can range anywhere from adherence tools like medication synchronization to digital platforms.

Knight has been a business coach with AmerisourceBergen since 2016, but his pharmacy career began in 1998 as a technician. He then went on to become a licensed pharmacist in 2000 where he spent 16 years in the chain industry before receiving his Master of Business Administration degree in health care management. On what inspires him in his role, Knight pointed to the passion that independent pharmacies have for their communities and their patients.

“The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized and accelerated the need for certain clinical services within community pharmacies, and we’ve been working closely with our customers to help them manage that demand,” Knight said. “Beyond COVID-19, independent pharmacies are always implementing clinical services that will positively impact the lives of the patients they serve.”

Approximately 90% of Americans live within 5 miles of a community pharmacy, so the broad availability of these services will be essential to reach as many patients as possible, especially during the pandemic. “Independent community pharmacies are invaluable assets to the healthcare system, providing a trusted, accessible and localized health destination to ensure communities can get the holistic care they need,” Zilka said. “That said, broad industry pressures are creating challenges for the long-term viability of community practices.”

Knight and Zilka provided insight into how independents can expand and optimize their services to prepare for the future of the industry.

Opportunities Amid COVID-19

The pandemic has underscored the need for expanded clinical services, especially given the mounting demand for COVID-19 testing and immunizations.

“Community pharmacies have a unique opportunity to play a central role in administering tests and immunizations,” Knight said. “In addition to sourcing the right products, we’re committed to helping pharmacies scale and ensure they have the tools and support needed to effectively test and treat their patients.”

Amid the pandemic, GNP’s business coaches are also helping pharmacies with the process of attaining a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) Certificate of Waiver. “We give them fact sheets and we walk them through a detailed action plan with a tangible date for implementation,” Knight said.

Furthermore, telemedicine has proven to be a welcome addition during this time. Being able to counsel through telemedicine ensures consistent care for patients, according to Knight, and patients appreciate the convenience. Since the introduction of social distancing guidelines, GNP has been collaborating with pharmacies to evaluate telemedicine offerings.

Pharmacies can further optimize their business performance by incorporating digital platforms for patient engagement, such as the PrescribeWellness call/text campaigns and the My GNP mobile app.

According to Zilka, the pandemic has only underscored the need to reach patients through these digital channels. Zilka cited an 18% increase in average monthly refills via MyGNP.com and a 32% increase through the My GNP mobile app, with a 58% increase in the local delivery section within the app, during the initial period of the pandemic. Furthermore, Zilka noted that these numbers aren’t necessarily going down even as social distancing restrictions ease up, indicating that these types of services may be here to stay. 

Non-COVID Services to Get Behind

Beyond COVID-19, pharmacies can look to implement other clinical services that are beneficial to their patients. Knight provided an overview of a few recommendations for independents to consider:

  • Wellness programs to help patients make healthier choices day-to-day, such as services to encourage weight loss or smoking cessation.
  • Diabetes counseling services, with the right blend of products and services, to create a 1-stop-shop for patients by offering guidance on insulin, monitors, test strips, diabetic shoes, and more.
  • Travel clinics, where pharmacists can recommend immunizations and/or medications that patients may need based on their travel plans. 
  • Veterinary prescription dispensing services through partnerships with local veterinarians. GNP’s new ped meds campaign, which launched on August 6, can be a tremendous value-add for independents. 

In addition, pharmacies should keep in mind that they can utilize CLIA waivers for more than just COVID-19 testing. “With a CLIA waiver, you can test for strep, you can test for flu, so there are other areas that we can really focus on outside of COVID-19 that can really benefit a pharmacy’s surrounding community,” Knight said.

When it comes to deciding which new services to add, Knight emphasized paying attention to the community. “Look at the big picture. You need to really understand what your community needs,” he said. For example, a store that Knight works with in northern New Jersey partners with high schools and middle schools in the community to offer flu vaccinations.

“It really is dependent on the needs of the community,” Knight added. “You don’t want a one-stop, quick-fix-all methodology. You really want to be more pinpointed in your targeting.”

Marketing Your Services

It’s not enough to just simply offer these services; patients and consumers need to know about them. As part of its Business Coaching program, GNP offers pharmacies guidance on effective strategies for marketing their services.

Knight pointed to GNP’s Market Analyzer tool, which allows business coaches and their partnered independent pharmacies to gain insight at missed opportunities in the market segment. “We’re able to see the patient demographics with local prescriber and disease state insights to give pharmacists a holistic view of their local market ,” he said. This tool can also be used to evaluate new areas for potential expansion, enabling owners to better understand the opportunities and demographics of their markets.

Zilka highlighted the importance of digital marketing, especially in the current environment.

“Digital marketing has always been important, and it’s become more and more important over the past couple of years,” she said. “But COVID underscored that it’s not only important and good to have, but it’s really a must-have in order to continue to connect with your patients and your community.”

Notably, digital and social media marketing can help pharmacies educate the community about the services they offer while also boosting their visibility online. GNP supports its pharmacies with robust digital marketing solutions to help them create tailored, localized strategies to attract, educate, and retain patients within their communities. Targeted Google paid advertising in particular has helped GNP’s pharmacies increase consumer interest in their stores and services.

“Our GNP advertising managers help pharmacies strengthen and pivot their digital marketing strategy across all key channels - Google My Business, Google advertising, and social media - to meet the current needs of their patients,” Zilka explained. ” Through Google paid advertising our customers have received an average of 200 calls per month per store.”

Call campaigns are another way to proactively engage and educate patients. Through GNP’s partnership with PrescribeWellness, pharmacists can record messages in their voice and the platform distributes the message to the appropriate patient base.

Zilka noted that GNP’s pharmacies’ digital efforts have resonated strongly with patients throughout the pandemic. “Our pharmacies shared 20,000 [social media] posts related to COVID-19 between March and June 2020, which reached more than 2.2 million social media users,” she said. These numbers indicate that, even when in-store connections are limited, pharmacies can still reach existing and potential patients by engaging with them online.

With the industry shifting toward more point-of-care testing, on-the-spot prescriptions, immunization demand, GNP will continue to evaluate opportunities for new revenue streams for its pharmacies. 

Zilka noted that, while expanding the pharmacist’s role is critically important to aid in COVID-19 response, pharmacies must prepare for the lasting effect on their profession as the expansion of their role extends beyond the pandemic. However, for this to be feasible, pharmacists must not only be authorized to practice at the top of their license, but compensated fairly for doing so. As pharmacists step into clinician roles, GNP continues to prioritize advocacy on the state and federal levels.

“This is an unprecedented time, and it’s critical that we address the challenges that hinder pharmacies from successfully expanding and stepping into their vital role,” Zilka said. “Important pharmacy services should be authorized and expanded to help deal with the COVID-19 outbreak and future health initiatives, which would increase provider capacity as health care resources are further stressed. This includes granting pharmacists’ provider status, giving them the ability to test and treat and fighting for fair reimbursement.”