J.D. Power: Mail-order pharmacies a growing threat to brick-and-mortar retailers

Patients are much more comfortable getting routine healthcare at brick-and-mortar pharmacies than they were in the past, thanks in large part to them having to flock to those pharmacies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, companies such as Amazon, which provide mail-order service, represent a growing threat to retail pharmacies, at least in terms of how patients purchase their medications.

Those represent two of the findings in the J.D. Power 2022 U.S. Pharmacy Study released yesterday. For the first time in the 14 years that the study’s been conducted, researchers looked at mail-order pharmacies.

A J.D. Power press release accompanying the study warns: “Watch out for Amazon: Nearly two-thirds (66%) of brick and mortar pharmacy customers currently have an Amazon Prime account and nearly half (48%) of pharmacy customers are aware of pharmacy services offered by Amazon.”

Fourteen percent of customers know about Amazon’s PillPack online pharmacy service. “Of that group, 38% say they ‘definitely will’ switch pharmacies in the next 12 months,” the J.D. Power study states.

Christopher Lis, Ph.D., the managing director for global healthcare intelligence at J.D. Power, said in the press release that “customers are beginning to embrace their retail pharmacy as a hub for a broad range of routine health and wellness services.This transformation is happening simultaneously with rising competition from online retailers such as Amazon, which is raising the stakes for local retail pharmacies.”

Data were collected from 12,142 pharmacy customers from September 2021 through May 2022 who had filled a prescription within the prior 12 months. More than 258.1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered at retail pharmacies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s on top of the 40.4 million doses of flu vaccines that are administered each flu season at brick-and-mortar pharmacies.

This has made customers “very comfortable with” receiving care at their pharmacies, and pharmacies that offer health and wellness services are rewarded by customer loyalty. “On average, 52% of customers who rely on their pharmacies for health and wellness services say they will not switch pharmacies,” according to the study. That number was 51%, 48%, and 43% in 2021, 2020 and 2019 respectively.

Routine healthcare services that customers would like their pharmacies to offer include vision and hearing services (33%) and physical exams and routine lab tests (27%). Lis views the greater willingness by people to receive healthcare at retail pharmacies as “an opportunity for more retail pharmacies to innovate as a one-stop shop for routine care and to leverage data and technology to create an increasingly personalized customer experience.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Michael Millenson, an internationally known expert on quality and patient care, thinks that the study overestimates how a big a role pharmacists will play in healthcare delivery in the future.

“Having gotten my COVID-19 shots at two different pharmacies, I found that there’s a huge shortage of pharmacists,” Millenson tells Fierce Healthcare. “Retail pharmacies are not equipped to cope with a huge influx of healthcare customers.”

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the average occupational growth rate for all occupations to grow more than 4% from 2020 to 2030, the number of pharmacists will actually decline by 2% in that same period.

A spokesperson for the American Academy of Family Physicians, which represents about 130,000 family physicians in the U.S., says “care delivered outside of the patient’s usual primary care setting can be a component of patient-centered care but must work in coordination with the patients’ primary care physician to ensure that care is not further fragmented.”

Meanwhile, Kathleen Bashur, a spokesperson for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores which represents about 40,000 pharmacies, maintains that “the study validates the trust and accessibility that Americans find in health and wellness services in the neighborhood retail setting.”

The study ranks pharmacy delivery systems by category. For instance, in the brick-and-mortar chain drug store pharmacy category, Good Neighbor Pharmacy ranked first with a score of 740.

Kaiser Permanente Pharmacy ranks highest in health plan pharmacy category with a score of 734. But Millenson wonders why the two categories exist in the same study.

“There’s a lot of difference between Kaiser Permanente and CVS,” says Millenson.

AHIP, the main lobbying organization for health plans, could not be reached for comment.

Kevin Kavanagh, M.D., founder of the patient advocacy group Health Watch USA, sees the benefit of more care being provided at pharmacies, noting that the COVID-fighting oral antiviral pill Paxlovid “can produce life-threatening drug interactions with a number of commonly prescribed medications, including cholesterol medications and anticoagulants. A pharmacist is the key healthcare professional to advise on the needed medication adjustments.”

Kavanagh notes that not too many years ago, the only health service that a pharmacy might provide would be blood pressure readings. He predicts that “in the future, we will see treatments and testing for other common diseases spill over to the pharmacy and allied healthcare providers. A1C monitoring for diabetes and home testing for MRSA carriers are examples.”

And while Amazon’s home delivery network represents a threat to any industry, even pharmacy, Kavanagh believes that many patients “will not want to wait for up to a day for their COVID-19 test and medication, and having a local healthcare provider who can readily consult with your physician when needed is a distinct advantage.”