Walgreens dives into primary care with clinic expansion

July 08, 2020 - 7:08 am

Walgreens will squeeze primary care clinics into as many as 700 of its U.S. stores over the next few years in a major expansion of the care it offers customers.

The drugstore chain said Wednesday that it will partner with VillageMD to set up doctor-led clinics that also use nurses, social workers and therapists to provide regular treatment for patients.

The retailer will redesign stores that get the clinics, narrow their shelves and pull products like tobacco to make room.

Drugstores like Walgreens and rival CVS typically tuck small clinics in the back of their stores to dole out flu shots or treat minor ailments like sinus infections or poison ivy. But Walgreens said last fall it was going to close nearly 40% of those clinics.

The company has been looking for a way to provide more comprehensive care, said executive Alex Gourlay.

“We are very confident that this is the right model for the future,” said Gourlay, global co-chief operating officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.

He noted that the primary care clinics will make it easier for pharmacists to work with doctors to make sure medicines don’t conflict or to help explain prescriptions to patients.

The clinics will recruit doctors who already have patients and will focus on caring for those with chronic diseases. They will use social workers to make sure patients have stable food sources and living situations. The clinics also will lean on things like telemedicine to help stay in touch with patients.

“It’s really about a different model of primary care,” said VillageMD CEO Tim Barry.

Insurers have become more interested in covering care that focuses on more than what happens in the doctor’s office. The idea is to keep patients, especially those with chronic conditions, healthy and out of the hospital or emergency room.

But retailers like Walgreens will face a challenge in getting patients used to visiting their locations regularly for care, said Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a Harvard Medical School professor who researches health care delivery.

“I think there’s an inherent uphill battle in convincing patients they should go to a store for their primary care,” he said.

Walgreens and VillageMD tested their clinics in the Houston market and plan to expand there, as well as Phoenix.

Walgreens runs more than 9,200 stores in the United States and expects to bring these primary care clinics to 30 markets in the next five years.

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