How Walgreens leveraged its Microsoft partnership to respond to COVID-19

Amid the surge in coronavirus cases in April, Walgreens leveraged its partnership with Microsoft to roll out a COVID-19 risk assessment tool on its website and mobile app.

That risk assessment tool, powered by Microsoft's healthcare bot, runs on Microsoft Azure and helps users assess their risk of COVID-19, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Walgreens announced its partnership with Microsoft last year to develop new healthcare delivery models, including technology and retail innovations to disrupt the healthcare delivery space.

It's just one example of how the pharmacy and retail giant is using its tech collaborations to build digital health services and expand access to care.

Before the health crisis, Walgreens was making steady moves to expand its reach deeper into the U.S. healthcare market. It teamed up with Verily, Alphabet Inc.’s life sciences research arm, to work on solutions for patients with chronic conditions.

RELATED: 3 ways CVS and Walgreens are trying to beat Amazon and e-pharmacy startups

Walgreens also is collaborating with technology company Philips to offer sleep solutions and digital tools through its digital marketplace as part of its ongoing focus on chronic disease management.

In 2019, Walgreens announced a partnership with LabCorp to open at least 600 testing centers inside Walgreens retail locations over the next four years.

It's also forged a series of partnerships with local health providers, insurance companies and digital health companies to offer in-store and online health services including AmWell, Heal, UnitedHealthcare, McLaren Health Care, Novant Health and Providence St. Joseph Health.

In a deal with Chicago-based VillageMD, a national provider of primary care, the company opened up several primary care clinics next to Walgreens stores in the Houston area, with plans to possibly expand there and in other markets.

These partnerships are part of Walgreens' strategy to stay competitive in the healthcare retail market as it looks to outmaneuver rivals like CVS Health and Amazon.

The collaborations also will be valuable as Walgreens continues to innovate during the COVID-19 health crisis and after the crisis subsidies, said Rick Gates, Walgreens' senior vice president of pharmacy and healthcare.

"The need to accelerate the pace of innovation is going to be very important. There is going to be a lot more collaboration to solve things quickly and it's going to be less about building things yourself," he told Fierce Healthcare.

The pandemic has proven that healthcare companies need to be fast to market with products and services to meet consumers' evolving needs, and that pace of change will not slow down, he said.

In the past three months, Walgreens took steps to meet immediate needs driven by the pandemic with a focus on digital health. The company expanded telehealth services through its Find Care platform and doubled the number of virtual care providers available.

It also provides patients with information about COVID-19 clinical trials through the Find My Clinical Trial program on its mobile app.

RELATED: Why Walgreens wants to help consumers get better sleep

Consumers have been clicking on the Walgreens mobile app quite frequently, with usage jumping 22% in April compared to the same time last year. Find Care visits increased 40%, to 2 million visits, in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the previous quarter, the company reported.

"The pandemic has upended healthcare delivery not only in terms of how it’s delivered today but how it will be delivered in the future," Gates said.

Walgreens' FindCare app (Walgreens)

During the health crisis, millions of Americans turned to telehealth and digital health services.

"Those changes are going to stick," he said. "The question is going to be how will consumer behavior continue to evolve."

He added, "Consumers' expectations are changing and if you're not with them, then you’re behind."

With that in mind, Walgreens also is taking steps to get ahead of longer-term trends with new services and digital tools.

With many consumers facing unemployment and shifts in health coverage, affordability is now a major issue. "There is uncertainty for consumers on how to afford essentials in life, such as food and medications," Gates said.

Walgreens lowered the prices on hundreds of medications available through the company’s subscription service, including drugs used to treat common chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and mental health. The pharmacy program also is open to Medicare and Medicaid members.

The pharmacy giant also is expanding the role of pharmacists as a part of the patient care team.

As a pharmacist by training, Gates spent the early part of his career working with patients face-to-face in Walgreens stores. He believes pharmacists will play a valuable role as local health providers in a post-pandemic world even as many of those interactions will likely be virtual rather than in-person.

Pharmacies have close ties to their communities, and, during the pandemic, pharmacists were often the most accessible health providers for patients seeking medical guidance and to ask questions about medications, Gates said.

RELATED: Microsoft, Walgreens team up to develop new healthcare delivery models

Walgreens has seen a significant uptick in the use of its pharmacy chat tool which is available 24/7 through its website and mobile app.

"The pharmacy of the future will have a community presence with an omnichannel approach," Gates said.

The company also wants its pharmacists to play a bigger role in providing mental health services, a critical need that has only grown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pharmacists at all Walgreens stores are being trained in "mental health first aid" to enhance mental health literacy, understanding risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns and strategies for how to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations.

The training program was developed through a collaboration between Walgreens, the National Council for Behavioral Health and the American Pharmacists Association.

Efforts to address patients' mental health needs also extend to Walgreen's telehealth services, Gates said.

"What we're seeing is that consumers and patients are looking at mental health services through telehealth differently than before and we want to make sure our pharmacists are trained to help consumers navigate these services," he said.