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HIMSS15: Walgreens Keynote Wrap Up

13 Apr 2015 by Robyn Itule

If Walgreens’ tagline is “at the corner of happy and healthy” then its IT strategy is “at the intersection of customers and technology.” That’s the takeaway from the online pharmacy’s President Alex Gourlay’s keynote speech at HIMSS15.

Gourlay highlighted that Walgreens is a brand focused on having a real purpose and sees itself as a global organization positioned to have a positive impact on health outcomes. As a business, they’re focused on doing this three ways:

1. Living a customer-led culture
2. Being a strategic partner
3. Encouraging innovation

So what does this brand promise have to do with IT? Everything. Like many health-centered businesses — indeed, like business in general — Walgreens discovered that the heart of their strategy was in looking at their customers and what their needs were, then the ecosystem of services their customers were already engaging with, and finally using all of that innovation to offer something new and comprehensive to drive positive health outcomes.

Focusing on the Core Business

Walgreens became the Walgreens Boots Alliance last year with operations in more than 25 countries centered on retail pharmacy, wholesale pharmacy and health services. Those three disciplines offer tremendous stratification and could potentially lead to some off-strategy initiatives. Instead, Walgreens honed in on the strengths in its pharmacy offerings and how they impacted customers.

“A culture of innovation is vital to health and economic survival,” noted Gourlay. He added that in its long history, the pharmacy, the patient and innovation have long been central to what Walgreens offers.

Investing in Partnerships

Most Internet citizens know that there’s a wealth of knowledge to be had on the Web. Getting the most factual, relevant and trustworthy information, especially as it pertains to health, can be a challenge.

“Today’s customers are more empowered than ever,” said Gourlay. This is primarily because of the ability to instantaneously search for health information whenever and wherever customers are. Knowing this, Walgreens engaged WebMD as part of a larger partnership reflected in the pharmacy chain’s apps, website and brick-and-mortar stores with Digital Health Advisor. Gourlay described the Digital Health Advisor mobile health effort as being a sort of “Healthcare TripAdvisor” for patients.

The strategic partnerships don’t stop at symptom searches and navigating general health questions. “Millenials are helping us redefine the convenience of wellness,” Gourlay acknowledged, which is just one reason behind another strategic partnership now rolling out in the US.

Walgreens recently launched a partnership with MDLIVE, a telehealth services provider, to offer virtual appointments and consultation through the Walgreens smartphone app.

“Offering mobile and virtual access to board-certified doctors is a natural extension of the robust range of health services that Walgreens already offers,” said Dr. Harry Leider, chief medical officer, Walgreens. “We’re delighted to work with MDLIVE to provide our patients with a leading telehealth solution that will allow them to conveniently address their health conditions and needs with a medical professional.”

Customer Data, Innovation and Real Health Improvements

The MDLIVE partnership is one effort leveraging telehealth. Another initiative offers up Walgreens pharmacists for live chats. This offering was developed after the company realized its most visited Web pages were related to questions for pharmacists. The live chat is hosting an average of 9,600 conversations per week.

Other innovations have evolved not from Web data, but from public health data. According to Gourlay, the cost of patients not taking medicine as prescribed is costing the healthcare system $3 billion annually. The Walgreens app has grown its suite of services to include applications directed at improving adherence like pill reminders, refills by scan and the previously mentioned pharmacist chat.

Wearables and patient-collected data offer health services providers a chance to go a step further — pun intended — with programs incentivizing activity and wellness practices as well as encouraging proper practices related to chronic conditions management. With a recent PwC US survey reporting that 80% of respondents look to wearables to eat smarter, exercise more efficiently and access more convenient medical care, it makes sense to tap into the trend.

“As consumers keep track of more and more data, we need to provide them with actionable insights,” Gourlay notes. Walgreens is integrating with a number of third-party apps and devices — including Apple Watch, launching in May — to help consumers get a more complete and action-oriented view of their health.

The main takeaway from Alex Gourlay’s talk is that Walgreens’ IT isn’t centered on speeds and feeds, stacks and racks or anything running in the background. For the global retail pharmacy, IT strategy is all about the customer.