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The pharmacies—and the pharmacists—of the future will have new looks and play new roles in the years ahead. As pharmacies become much more than places to pick up pills, customers will instead find a health care destination where a wide variety of primary health services will be available. The COVID pandemic has only accelerated this process.
One of the companies leading this transition is Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), where Steve Rempel, a 2015 Harbert College Executive MBA graduate, is senior vice president and chief information officer. He spoke recently from his base in London on the company’s plans to expand health care delivery.
Harbert College of Business: The impact of the pandemic has been felt throughout the health care business, but more specifically, how has the pandemic changed the way WBA has done business?
Rempel: It’s such a big question. Everyone asks the question, how has COVID affected you? Well, in every single aspect is the correct answer.
From a WBA point of view, we have two big parts of the company. We’ve got a retail part—Walgreens in the U.S., Boots in the United Kingdom— but we also run a pharmaceutical wholesale company across many different countries in Europe, and it’s affected them differently. On the retail side of it, we have this unique ability to very quickly have tens of thousands of trained health care practitioners available to the public. With almost 10,000 stores in the U.S. and 2,500 in the U.K., we can be at every street corner very quickly with a very consistent message and a very thorough health care mindset.
It has changed the way we think about health care. Everyone thought at the beginning, and you hear a lot of the politicians say, “By summer it’ll be gone,” “By September it’ll be gone,” “By Christmas it’ll be gone.”
But being a retailer and a wholesaler, we can’t rely on that. So, it has changed the way we approach messaging our employees, because we don’t want to message them differently every two weeks. It’s very difficult to message over 400,000 employees and you can’t be changing your mind all the time. As you know, living it as an individual, there was a lot of different information. Now imagine it across all the countries we operate in across the globe.
So, we had to be very careful in the messaging that we give to the stores. And we always put the pharmacist and the person walking in the store in the center of every single one of those decisions, because we didn’t want to have any misinformation, especially when you spread it across a global company like we are.
So that’s for the retail stores. For the pharmaceutical wholesale side, it really became a race to make sure that supply chains were set up and supply chains were ready because once the manufacturers got their supply built up, then the important part gets put to the supply chain. Now you have to get that medication into a provider’s hands. Some providers are in hospitals, some are in clinics, some are in stores. So even in the supply chain, delivering to a hospital is much different than a single propriety pharmacy that may be allowed to give prescriptions and shots. It’s very different.
HCOB: Looking ahead to eventual recovery and a post-pandemic business climate, what do you think will be the lasting effects of the pandemic on your company?
Rempel: I think what you’re seeing is a switch to start to utilize the pharmacies as neighborhood health experts. We know that when something like this comes along, it really puts pressure on emergency care. It puts pressure on the hospitals. And also from the individual doctors, who were seeing a lot of people for COVID and not seeing patients for other critical things like diabetes and other things like that. Those things got pushed to the side, not from a patient point of view, but strictly from a time management and facility point of view of being able to do all of those things.
I think as we come out in recovery, you’ll see the stores become destinations for health care, health care advice, health care services, information. More people have switched, especially across Europe, to online, because Europe is still much more locked down than the U.S., where people are starting to go back to a normal shopping pattern. Online has definitely had a large change and that change is here to stay.
HCOB: WBA has made a major investment in primary care clinics located at its pharmacies. How does that investment fit into the long-term strategy of the company?
Rempel: You’ve got to think of it as two stages. You’ve got a pharmacist who is there. He has the tools in front of him. He has a facility in the store, but then beyond that, there will be things for which patients really want more privacy. They want more one-on-one. They may not feel comfortable just talking about something to a pharmacist in a store environment, even a private store environment. So that’s where those clinics start to blur the line between a primary care physician and a traditional pharmacy as you and I think about it.
I think they will play a bigger part in health care globally. We’re seeing that. We get a unique vantage point because we get to see it across a lot of countries across Europe, through China, down and through South America, the U.S. and Great Britain, and we’re seeing that happen at a global scale.
HCOB: The role of pharmacists in the U.S. health care system is evolving. How does WBA plan to integrate pharmacists into the overall health care picture?
Rempel: One of the things that the pandemic has really reinforced is that the pharmacist
and the pharmacy techs are a very integral part in that health care system. Even before
we really gave COVID shots out of stores, we were delivering it to health care service
centers. We were delivering it to nursing homes. So, the role of a pharmacist is somewhat
changing. The pharmacist is getting out in the community and going to those vaccination
centers, performing vaccinations over here in England, where the National Health Service
set up testing. We were one of the partners in testing. They weren’t at the stores,
they were at drive-through clinics that were set up. The days of the pharmacist being
behind the counter and doing nothing but counting pills are starting to change and
HCOB: The company has expanded its telehealth features during the pandemic. What do you
see as the role of telehealth and telemedicine going forward in the post-pandemic
times and how does WBA plan to be a part
Rempel: I think what you will start to hear about is pharmacy services. Those pharmacy services can be everything from “I’ve got a rash” or “What’s my best sun cream to use?” to questions and answers from a pharmacist and then you get into a little more, such as flu shots, COVID shots, shingles shots.
And with people now used to working and being at home, communicating like we are today on Zoom or on Teams, you will start to see the consumer drive telemedicine. In the past, we’ve had different companies that have tried to be the conduit for telemedicine, but it really hasn’t caught on in how we operate as consumers. Now the consumers are so used to this way of communication. When available, you’re going to see more and more consumers use it and as you get more usage, they will build up the capabilities. I think it’ll be a big part of health care in our future.
HCOB: WBA operates in countries with very different health care systems. What are the challenges that these different systems, with varied levels of government and private-sector involvement, pose for the company?
Rempel: It is something that we are constantly managing, looking at it, changing, trying to make sure that as a very important part of health care delivery, we can do what is best for the patient. Sometimes, different countries have different rules. Where it really comes into play sometimes is when people travel on vacation. My prescription may be administered in Spain, but I’m on holiday in Italy. Spain and Italy have a very different view on privacy, as does Germany, as does the United Kingdom. I think as long as you’re treating all of the information with the appropriate focus on patient privacy and patient care, some of the small things fall by the wayside, but it is something that we actively manage each and every week.
HCOB: Your previous CEO said, “The company wants to prepare for the pharmacy of the future, which is not the pharmacy we think of today.” What might that pharmacy of the future look like? Not only in its appearance, but in its business model.
Rempel: I think you’ll see the pharmacist and the pharmacy become much more of a health destination. Think of things like optical, hearing aid, immunizations, prescriptions and healthy choices around what people want to consume. We know for a fact that there are certain foods that help with the absorption of a prescription that you have. Being able to give the consumer information on things like that and provide it as conveniently and as easily as possible, is really where you’re going to see the pharmacy, the front of store, the back of the store, all those services working as one to be able to make the consumer’s trip as easy as possible.
HCOB: Your company has made Fortune Magazine’s list of the world’s most admired companies for more than 25 years. What qualities keep WBA consistently on that list, and how have those qualities helped the company deal with the business impact of the pandemic?
Rempel: You know, at the end of the day, it’s all about the people and the focus that we have. We truly believe health care should be for everyone. We want to provide access to health care, access to health services, for everyone who has the ability to get to us in one way or another. That could be telemedicine, that could be going to a store, that could be at an immunization center. We feel very passionately about that. It really becomes our guiding light in the decisions that we make.
HCOB: Are there other areas of business and strategy during this time and coming into the time of, we hope, recovery that you might want to talk about?
Rempel: People who claim to know what’s going to be next year are probably misguided. I don’t think we really know. I think for most of the people within WBA who are providing services, working on patient care, working on pharmacy care, one of the things that we really had to be more than anything is extremely nimble.
Things have changed. We talked earlier on about how people were saying it’ll be over by spring, summer will come, by Christmas, and here we are as I sit in London today and we’re still in a lockdown. It is being open to new and different ways of doing things and knowing that right now, everybody is chasing things a little bit. What is the best course of action? We’re very close to the government regulators, we’re very close to the hospitals, the doctors, but no one really has a crystal ball and can really say what the next two to six months are going to look like.
HCOB: In these challenging times, what advice would you give to Harbert students who will soon be entering the business world?
Rempel: It gets back to a few principles, honesty and integrity. There unfortunately has been so much misinformation over the last year of what this pandemic would bring, where it came from, where it is, the state of it. Honesty and integrity are so important for people coming out of school today, especially around health care.
No one wants bad news, but people want honest news and they want an honest assessment. They want to be told when they can get their shot. In some areas they may not like the answer. I think what we have to be able to do is speak very honestly about health care, speak very openly about health care. It is an extremely personal thing, even getting a flu shot, which today we take for granted, right? Some people do, some people don’t, and we take it for granted because it’s always there.
I think in the new world, we have to really focus on that honesty and integrity, especially from the new people and the grads coming out, because they’re faced with new challenges that I didn’t face when I got my undergrad degree or my MBA.