HealthApril 07, 2024

The changing role of retail pharmacy opens opportunities to enhance customer experience

The retail pharmacy sector is evolving into a more fast-paced business, with greater demand for both prescription and direct care services. But those same challenges can offer pharmacists opportunities to develop richer, long-term relationships with patients.

Patient Experience Week: Recognizing pharmacy’s contribution and potential

At the end of April every year, the healthcare community in the U.S. marks Patient Experience Week (April 29-May 3, 2024) to celebrate those providers that make a notable and continued effort on behalf of their patients. Largely the focus has been on traditional primary care and hospital settings.

But now, at a time when the U.S. is facing a clinician shortage and patients are struggling to obtain answers to non-emergent health questions in a timely manner, retail pharmacy is finding itself positioned to fill a void in care access and positively impact patient and customer experience.

“The patient today has much more responsibility to understand their own healthcare and make really difficult decisions around their healthcare,” explains Garry Marshall, Senior Director of Pharmacy Strategy at Wolters Kluwer, Health. “We are experiencing a primary care physician (PCP) shortage and a nursing shortage. One of the most accessible healthcare providers right now is a pharmacist, and in most cases, they absolutely signed up for it. The average retail pharmacist got into the business because they wanted to work with people. They want to help people.”

The changing dynamic of retail pharmacy

The retail pharmacy consumer experience of today differs vastly from that of 10 or even five years ago, Marshall says. An experience that was once based entirely on the efficiency and accuracy of prescription-filling is now “going way beyond that.” Much of those changes are rooted in an extreme shift in customer expectations related to the speed, convenience, and personalization of care delivery.

“Every healthcare center has to double down on their patient experience, but pharmacies are actually having to do both that and keep up with prescription fills at the same time, which is an interesting challenge,” he says. “Pharmacy is changing its dynamic.”

Research shows that patients consider pharmacists among the most trusted healthcare providers. Those surveys reveal:

  • 58% of consumers say they are likely to visit a local pharmacy as their first step for non-emergent care.
  • 81% of Americans say they trust a pharmacist or advanced practice provider to offer care when they or loved ones are ill.
  • One-third of consumers report that convenience is more important to them than credentials when it comes to non-emergent care.

Legislation is starting to catch up to allow pharmacists to provide more services,” Marshall says. “But I think part of it links back to the fact that more and more is being put on shoulders of the patient. The patient is saying, ‘Help.’ And the pharmacist is the person they see the most who is doing their very best to step up to that request.”

Building a ‘longitudinal relationship’ to improve patient education

Going into this year’s Patient Experience Week, retail pharmacists should recognize that one of the advantages they have is the ability to develop a relationship with customers that Marshall describes as “more longitudinal in time.”

The ongoing nature of pharmacy service, creating a cycle in which customers will likely return regularly to their local pharmacy for medication refills, means that engagement with customers cannot and does not need to take place all in one visit. Marshall describes an ideal patient experience as beginning with “a pretty basic conversation” between consumer and pharmacist. “But what it should do is intrigue you to learn more about your medications or a related condition. Then you're going to come back in 30 days for your refill with a next set of questions.”

The pharmacist is uniquely positioned to keep those conversations going and develop them over time, Marshall believes, creating a consistent and reliable resource for healthcare knowledge for patients. “Right now, you try to do that with your PCP, you could be three weeks out before you could get an appointment. And are you really going to schedule an appointment to ask a couple of questions?”

Immunizations as a blueprint for expanding pharmacy care experiences

Pharmacists have become the go-to resource for convenient adult flu and COVID-19 vaccinations. In surveys, 62% of consumers say they would go to the pharmacy for their adult immunizations.

It took time and a bit of a learning curve for retail pharmacies to become associated in consumers’ minds as vaccination destination, Marshall notes. But as immunization services streamline, Patient Experience Week may be the time to start thinking about how they could serve as a blueprint for pharmacies wishing to expand care offerings in order to better accommodate consumer needs.

“The transition to offering vaccines felt really smooth, and I think there’s no reason why doing A1C testing or signing up for a smoking cessation program at a pharmacy couldn’t be just as smooth,” he says.

Immunization programs also open the door to future possibilities of strengthening relationships with patients by offering additional value and engaging them proactively, Marshall says.

“Vaccinations go beyond just flu season or COVID-19,” he notes, and pharmacies can offer a wider variety of adult vaccinations to improve wellness and convenience for consumers, particularly where there are PCP shortages.

With the help of contextual data, pharmacies can reach out to patients and recommend immunizations, further services, or education based on their age or preexisting conditions to help enhance connections and wellness.

“If you have the right data points, you can start to leverage technology and patient education,” Marshall says, citing the example of wellness recommendations that accompany a birthday greeting when patients turn 50, customized depending on their health history or specific conditions, like diabetes. “You could create a pretty cool experience. But you have to find a balance: No one wants to feel like these things are shoved down their throats. But digital outreach can allow you to consume information and feel like you have some control. Like you’re not just being forced to take somebody’s perspective.”

Importance of digital education in customer satisfaction

Digital patient education is an essential ingredient to developing the pharmacist-patient relationship and creating a more robust, longitudinal patient experience, Marshall says.

“We live in an environment where [engagement] has to be at the right place in the right time for the consumer,” he explains. “And a lot of times that may not be in the pharmacy. Consumers just don't have the luxury of sitting down with the pharmacist and having a 30-minute conversation to answer all their questions. That could be because the pharmacist has to fill the next script, or it could be because the patient has to run out the door to pick up their kiddo from daycare. So, it’s important to make this content available when the patient is ready to consume it.”

Integrated digital health content allows pharmacists to deploy – through a variety of delivery methods, including texts, emails, website links, and QR codes – patient-facing educational materials and videos to continue the conversations begun in the pharmacy. Access to a digital solution allows for more flexibility and personalization than paper printouts, Marshall notes.

“As we should, we're moving away from this one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “We’re getting much more into tailored content for the patient and their situation. Digital allows us to do a much better job of taking inputs, sifting through, and identifying what is most important to this individual that they should see, as opposed to inundating them with everything and putting the burden on their shoulders to decide what they need to take or leave.”

Digital content and outreach are the preferred patient experience for younger generations in particular, who also, Marshall notes, tend to be less likely to automatically trust medical professionals and more apt to want resources to better understand their health before making decisions.

“Offering digital education plays a big role in the newer generation having the ability to consume data, process it, and come back with questions,” Marshall says.

Retail pharmacy’s impact on health equity 

During Patient Experience Week it is vital to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) and more equitable care for all patients. Retail pharmacy still “has a lot of work to do,” when it comes to ensuring all patients are receiving equitable care regardless of age, race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or ability, Marshall notes. Much of that comes back to tailoring outreach, education, and care recommendations to be as relevant and patient-specific as possible.

Right now, Marshall says, when inputting patient data into a profile, most pharmacies don’t have a means to consider factors like preexisting health conditions, let alone inputs such as income or access to nearby care centers or transportation, things commonly classified under social determinants of health. However, there are programs through health plans and providers for which many customers could be eligible but unaware, including healthy food vouchers, transportation assistance, and more. With the ability to better understand a patient’s situation, a pharmacist could help recommend these programs and get customers signed up for the assistance they need.

“These are things that absolutely have the ability to impact care,” Marshall says. “They are right on the verge of becoming more commonplace. The pharmacist is really well-positioned to be able to deliver those sorts of messages, and a big percentage of the population could take advantage of them.”

Whitepaper: How can retail pharmacies adapt to the changing landscape?

Patient Experience Week draws special attention to the importance of engaging with healthcare consumers, but professionals know that modern consumers increasingly expect their retail pharmacies to address additional health needs year-round. Learn about industry trends and proactive approaches in the whitepaper, “Creating a future-ready retail pharmacy: Challenges and opportunities.”

Download the Whitepaper
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