Walgreens' CMO on the retailer's expanding healthcare role, Microsoft partnership

Pharmacy and retail company Walgreens is increasingly relying on partnerships with tech companies like Verily and Microsoft to build digital healthcare services. (Walgreens)

Pharmacy and retail giant Walgreens has been aggressively working to establish itself as a force in the growing market for digital healthcare and web-driven patient care as it looks to outmaneuver rivals like CVS Health and Amazon.

In November, CVS completed its $69 billion acquisition of healthcare insurer Aetna and has been rapidly expanding its influence in transforming healthcare delivery. Last June, Amazon announced it was buying online pharmacy Pillpack, and some experts said the deal could be the harbinger of Amazon getting into the pharmacy storefront and rapid clinic business.

Not to be outdone, Walgreens has made several strategic moves just in the past year to build out its digital healthcare services. In January, Walgreens announced it was teaming up with Microsoft to develop new healthcare delivery models by combining Microsoft Azure—the tech giant's cloud and artificial intelligence platform—with Walgreens' outpatient healthcare and retail footprint. Working with Microsoft, Walgreens plans to pilot up to 12 store-in-store "digital health corners" to sell certain healthcare-related hardware and devices. 

photo of Walgreens' Find Care Now mobile app
The retail pharmacy company also is working with Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences research arm, to use technology to help patients with diabetes and medication management.
In a deal that combines the retail and telemedicine markets, Walgreens teamed up with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital to put telemedicine kiosks in a number of New York City stores.

And last July, the company launched a new digital marketplace called Find Care Now, a desktop application and mobile app that enables consumers to navigate and access local and digital healthcare services. The platform offers access to varied services including neighborhood healthcare clinics, physician house calls and optical and hearing services. The platform connects to 20 healthcare provider organizations including Advocate Health Care, Providence St. Joseph Health and LabCorp as well as telehealth providers DermatologistonCall and MDLive.

The Walgreens mobile app has been downloaded more than 50 million times and has 5 million active users each month, according to the company. The drugstore chain offers online prescription orders and refills at about 8,100 locations in the U.S. About 200 million of the 1 billion prescription orders Walgreens processes each month are completed online, the company said.

RELATED: CVS Health's Larry Merlo: Efforts already underway with Aetna to 'remake' healthcare

Both digital healthcare and on-premises retail will play an important role in how Walgreens provides healthcare services going forward, Pat Carroll, M.D., Walgreens’ chief medical officer, told FierceHealthcare. Carroll, a family physician for the past 25 years, previously served as CMO and vice president at Integrated Care Partners at Hartford HealthCare.

FierceHealthcare recently spoke with Carroll about Walgreens’ ambitions for the healthcare market, its ongoing focus on digital healthcare services and the partnership with Microsoft. 

head shot photo of Pat Carroll, M.D., Walgreens CMO
Pat Carroll, M.D. (Walgreens)

FierceHealthcare: Can you give me a sense of what role Walgreens wants to play in healthcare?

Pat Carroll: Coming to Walgreens, five years ago, I came to realize that there is a whole other venue of healthcare that sometimes goes unrecognized, which is the pharmacy. What we have, through close to 9,800 locations, is valuable access points into healthcare—both brick and mortar and also a digital access point to healthcare. So what we have created, and continue to expand on, is a health neighborhood destination where the consumer can get information off our website that directs them to appropriate access points to care. We’re also doing a whole range of health services at our retail locations, so that’s primary care, senior-focused care, vision, lab services, even dental services. We realize that through the intersection of physical and digital, we can provide access points and navigation through the complex health system for consumers. In addition, we have the ability to connect that to our pharmacy and to work on things like medication adherence and education around medications, particularly as we have an aging population on multiple medications and specifically those patients with chronic diseases.

FH: Can you provide more detail about Walgreens’ partnership with Microsoft?

PC: We’re in the initial stages of exploring the relationship. It’s clear to us that one of the areas of focus will be around developing a suite of chronic disease management applications and patient engagement applications and really leveraging all the engineering talent from Microsoft as well as their cloud and AI and internet of things technologies. We think that the partnership of pharmacy as well as the technologies that Microsoft can bring in is really going to prove of value, particularly in the area of chronic disease management. Many of those patients are going to have a significant pharmacy component to their care—which we can help with—as well as the ability to do outreach and deliver care beyond just the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. physician’s office business.

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

FH: Walgreens also launched its digital platform Find Care Now last year. What kinds of services are being offered, and how many consumers are using this platform?

PC: The goal with launching Find Care Now was to provide a health navigator application through our website and through our app to help consumers to find the access points to care in a very transparent way on their schedule. We are offering 30 different types of localized relevant healthcare services including urgent care, telehealth, dermatology telehealth and lab testing options through our partnership with LabCorp in select markets. And we’re linked with several health system partners.

We have also data showing that the Find Care platform gets a significant amount of online traffic, twice as much as we have seen from physician consultations that were previously featured on our digital tools. We do over 25,000 pharmacy chats per week. It’s had rapid growth in terms of adoption and we feel that it is filling a need in terms of care navigation and price transparency with the consumer.

FH: What is the advantage of these outside partnerships with health systems versus Walgreens’ on-site health services?

PC: We realize we can’t provide all of the care within our four walls, but we can certainly be the matchmaker for our health system partners. So why not form partnerships with health systems who offer the full fleet of services, including specialty care, and we can be the connector? These health system partners work with us beyond just this relationship. We partner with them around pharmacy programs, whether that’s around adherence or specialty pharmacy. It’s really about using what we do best, which is pharmacy and connecting consumers to services, and what health systems offer, which is the care models both in our stores and in their own locations.

RELATED: Walgreens and Verily announce partnerships for diabetes, medication adherence

FH: Going forward, how do you see consumers' use of digital platforms for accessing healthcare services changing?

PC: We see that the digitization of healthcare has been well received by consumers, but there are some situations where you need to be physically there. For example, lab services. We’re running a full primary care practice at Walgreens and to be able to have that direct face-to-face interface with the provider we also find is valuable. I don’t think those two areas compete; I think they are more complementary than competitive.

As a primary care physician, I find these changes in offerings in terms of different venues of care to be very exciting. We have a challenge in this country in terms of an aging population and the increasing prevalence of chronic disease. I think we need many different ways to approach healthcare and the digital aspect is very exciting.