The future of independent pharmacy requires the combination of what makes independent pharmacy special and the digital landscape found elsewhere in retail.
Ask a variety of people about what they think about when they hear the phrase “independent pharmacy” and many of them would describe an independent pharmacy straight out of the 1950’s: a soda counter, some basic health necessities, and a pharmacist who fills prescriptions and has all of the time in the world to answer questions. The reality is of course quite different, as discussed at this year’s ThoughtSpot Conference and Trade Show hosted by AmerisourceBergen and Good Neighbor Pharmacy in Orlando, Florida. Rich Tremonte, Customer Operations, Animal Health, and Community & Specialty Pharmacy (CSP), and Guilio Burzacca, Managing Director of Alphega Pharmacy, which is the European counterpart of Good Neighbor Pharmacy with pharmacies in 8 countries within the European Union plus the United Kingdom and Turkey, discussed how COVID-19 impacted independent pharmacists, what customers expect when they walk into a pharmacy, and what the future holds for the pharmacy industry.
According to Tremonte, customers are looking for the “instant gratification” that they experience elsewhere in their lives, especially online, to also happen within their healthcare destinations, including their local pharmacy. But at the same time, they also want the personal touch that has long been the backbone of independent pharmacy. The pandemic pushed this desire into turbo charge, when many people were trying to do their part and reduce contact with others. In Europe, more customers have returned to the brick-and-mortar experience, especially in independent pharmacy. According to Burzacca, independent pharmacies have seen in-store sales increase by 6% to 8%, whereas chain pharmacies have seen them only increase from 3% to 4%, indicating that the personal touch remains important and can be reason enough for a pharmacy customer to shop in-store.
Innovation is important to remaining at the forefront of the industry. However, many of the biggest innovations coming from pharmaceutical companies have been in areas that aren’t as relevant for retail pharmacies – including specialty injectables and infused therapies for rare and complex conditions, which means independent pharmacies must evolve their businesses in other ways. To spur innovation and find the next step, AmerisourceBergen has begun to invite pharmacist customers to the company’s headquarters, Tremonte said, where they are asked about what they’re looking for and how AmerisourceBergen can help them meet patient demands.
Standing out is more important than ever in a crowded market. Tremonte noted that when he’s in the field, he’s watching how GNP pharmacies find their “something special” that makes them stand out in order to engage customers and patients. Some pharmacies have a front-end that knocks it out of the park. Others have developed connections with health systems and providers to create symbiotic relationships that help customers achieve better health outcomes for complex or chronic conditions, such as diabetes. For others, it’s hearkening back to simpler times, like a pharmacy in Alaska that’s known for its ice cream counter.
To help pharmacies determine what can make them stick out, AmerisourceBergen offers business coaching and analytics programs to help pharmacies analyze patient data, as well as prescriber data, to identify key growth and marketing opportunities for the pharmacy. The program helps pharmacists answer the important, but sometimes hard to answer question, ‘where can I win?’ It analyzes demographics and other factors, along with identifying potential relationships, that can bring in new patients, garner more revenue, and help improve overall health outcomes. This approach seems to be working for Good Neighbor Pharmacy stores. Recently, Good Neighbor Pharmacy was ranked “Highest in Customer Satisfaction with Chain Drug Store Pharmacies” in the J.D. Power 2022 U.S. Pharmacy Study. This is the 11th time that Good Neighbor Pharmacy has earned this recognition in the last 13 years and the network’s sixth consecutive win. What’s more, Good Neighbor Pharmacy also achieved the highest score with the “My Level of Trust with Pharmacy” factor, indicating exceptional patient confidence.
In both the United States and Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic was the shining moment for pharmacies and their staff to show what they can do and how they create value for the health care ecosystem. In the United States, this led to expanding vaccinating capability, testing, and even prescribing powers, albeit with some restrictions. In Europe, only 2 of the countries that Alphega operates in, France and the United Kingdom, allowed for vaccination in the pharmacy prior to the pandemic, but now 3 more countries: Portugal, Romania, and Italy also allow it, with some German states also vaccinating.
This expansion of pharmacists’ authority is based on a couple of simple facts. In the early days of the pandemic, pharmacies were often the only available health care site that people could access, with hospitals and clinics all over the world swamped with COVID-19 cases. Additionally with the drive to use telehealth, pharmacies offered the only face-to-face health care that many were able to find. Pharmacies were also quick to act to protect patients and employees, with many in the United States offering curbside pickup or delivery. In Europe, Alphega pharmacies had screens up within days of the lockdown starting as well as a one-way system through the store, according to Burzacca.
Already one of the most trusted groups in health care, recent surveys have found that the public places even greater trust in pharmacists since the worst days of COVID-19. A recent survey in France found that pharmacists had a trust score of 97. In comparison, the next most trusted group had a score in the low 60s.
The next step is to look to the future. For Burzacca and Alphega, this means focusing on Diamond, a program that allows independent pharmacists to have access to preferential programs, launches, and initiatives from large manufacturers. The hope for the program is that it will allow independent pharmacy to compete on more even ground with chain pharmacy, but still maintain the personal touch that is one of the cornerstones independent pharmacy. Alphega is also working on a program to provide the best treatment and use data in ways that can help improve care and give pharmacists actionable information.
In the United States, Tremonte said, “taking a step back, we need to be easy to work with. I always compare it to our personal lives. We all want to know who we’re buying from and be able to return something easily, or quickly get them on the phone to resolve an issue.” This view is what’s helping guide AmerisourceBergen’s continued commitment to enhancing the experience of its pharmacy customers.
One of AmerisourceBergen’s major investments is making it easier to reach someone who can help. Instead of being siloed, all customer service teams are now fully connected in one group with access to all of the same data to streamline the customer experience. And when making a call, pharmacists will soon be able to use a callback feature, which will mean that they no longer must stay on the line waiting on hold, but can instead go about their business until an available person calls them back to help. For common questions, the Self Service portal can provide answers, meaning that phone calls won’t even be needed. The ordering systems are also continually being improved to make it easier for pharmacists to find exactly what they need.
Beyond the specific projects, Tremonte believes the future of pharmacy requires a 2-pronged approach: diversifying clinical services and capabilities and embracing all that digital has to offer from scheduling to advertising to letting pharmacy customers search inventory before they even reach the store. For Burzacca, it’s helping pharmacists prepare for what’s next, not only with projects like Diamond, but programs that address new concerns like cybersecurity and can help expand clinical services.