Walgreens: Investing in the Power of the Patient

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Thanks in part to Affordable Care Act reforms and the rise of digital health, patients now have more skin in the game, more health care tools at their disposal, and more information than ever before to take charge of their own health.

Dr. Harry Leider, CMO and Group VP of Walgreens, speaking on a panel at last week’s Digital Healthcare Innovation Summit in Boston, said health care providers must find a way to adapt to the schedules and demands of patients, who have more say over how their health care dollars – and their time – are spent.

“Traditional providers are learning that they [patients] are not willing to take a half-day off from work, figure out what to do with their kids, to get routine care,” he told the panelists. “People are busier, the information technology has made it easier to get solutions without having to spend a half-day somewhere.”

It’s no surprise, then, that pharmacy retailers are placing big bets on consumer-facing health care opportunities.

In the past few years, the pharmacy-services giant CVS Health has made big investments in this area, dropping tobacco sales, expanding its MinuteClinics, and also establishing a drug ad-herence program. Now with Walgreens’ recent announcement of its $9.4 billion acquisition of Rite Aid Pharmacies, it has effectively overtaken CVS to become the leader with 46.5% of the market to CVS’ 30.9% share.

But Walgreens is looking to get bigger on the back end as well. Also, just this week it announced an upgrade to their mobile app which improves its functionality and also expands their telehealth services to 25 states (previously available in only 5 states). Walgreens’ other health care investments hint at its level of commitment, including its partnership with controversial laboratory services company Theranos and a recent announcement that it has partnered with health information tech giant Epic to install that firm’s electronic health record software across all of its health care clinics.

Walgreens is banking on its huge presence to provide easy and convenient access to the next generation of health care consumers. “Everybody knows Walgreens,” Leider said. “We have 8,300 stores, 25,000 pharmacies, and over 1,000 nurse practitioners in our clinics.” He also emphasized that half of Walgreens are located in ethnically diverse areas, with a large number of especially high-risk populations, which gives them a unique opportunity to influence health care outcomes. “Take the average diabetic patient. Diabetes is an epidemic in our country, but especially among diverse populations. First of all, a diabetic, if they’re lucky, sees a primary care doctor two to three times a year. The average diabetic comes to our pharmacy counter 20 times a year. So the opportunity to provide systems that can solve problems is greater because of this.”

Walgreens has started a digitally supported Healthy Choices Program, which rewards consum-ers for walking, weighing themselves, logging blood pressure and blood glucose levels, commit-ting to smoking cessation, and setting other health goals. In addition, it offers digital health coaching, pharmacy checks, and even virtual doctor visits.

Roughly 800,000 people have signed up, Leider said. About 500,000, of those patients are sharing their personal health data with Walgreens. What the company has found thus far from its collection of these data is that engaged users (who are actively tracking their weight) lost an average of 3.3 pounds more than non-engaged users and 1 out of 6 lost more than 10 lbs. In addition, Walgreens found that its engaged users have overall healthier behaviors and better drug adherence.

Still, he’s not a blind advocate of digital health: “I don’t think digital health alone can solve the problems you’re talking about.” Leider insists that Walgreens is not trying to usurp the tradition-al establishment but rather be a resource to providers. “We really see ourselves as supporting traditional providers and adding value to the ecosystem. We’re not gearing ourselves up to do primary care,” he said. “So our strategy really is to provide a low-cost option for care and to partner with health systems and providers.”

Going forward, Dr. Leider would like to see a greater transition to value-based care. “Despite what everybody’s saying, most providers are still trying to keep the beds full and have the most number of visits. So, for all this tech to be funded and sustainable, it’s got to be the right envi-ronment to really reward people for staying well.”

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This article was originally published at www.digitalhealthcaresummit.com.  

Precision Medicine: Pros & Cons

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23 chromosomes (image from Scientific American)

This past week, President Obama announced a $215 million proposed genetic research plan, called the Precision Medicine Initiative.  According to the plan,  the NIH would receive $130 million towards a project to map the DNA of 1 million people, the National Cancer Institute would receive $70 million to research the genetic causes of cancer, the FDA would receive $10 million to evaluate new diagnostic drugs and devices, and finally, $5 million would be spent on tech infrastructure to analyze and safely store this data.

Not surprisingly, this announcement sparked some online controversy.  If internet pundits are to be believed, this plan is going to prevent you from ever finding a mate, an employer, get health insurance, cause us all to become part of a giant genetic experiment to tailor human beings, and will also put us into crippling debt and line the pockets of Big Pharma.  I’m not even sure I covered it all…The complaints ranged from reasonable to ridiculous.  The most amusing are the conspiracy theorists who are certain that Obama must be plotting a genetic apocalypse.

But, in all seriousness, I have to admit I have concerns as well, despite being mostly optimistic about this news.

Here are some of the exciting positives offered by the precision medicine plan:

  • New diagnoses:  We may finally be able to identify genetic causes of diseases that were previously unknown.
  • Prevention vs. disease management:  Knowing genetic risks ahead of time can help us to focus more on preventing disease rather than reacting after-the-fact, once the disease occurs.
  • Early diagnosis:  We may be able to detect diseases earlier and at a more treatable stage.
  • Protective genes:  Some people have certain genes that protect them against diseases or prevent them from “expressing” their bad genes.  Studying these differences may help us to learn how to protect ourselves against those diseases.
  • Drug development:  Therapies can be developed in a faster and more efficient way by targeting certain genetic problems, rather than using the traditional trial-and-error method.
  • Personalized treatments:  Treatments can be tailored to a patient’s unique genetic aberration and we can avoid giving treatments to patients that we know may cause adverse reactions or that will fail to work.
  • Population health:  We can study genetic patterns in populations of patients to find out causes of diseases, develop treatments, and find ways to prevent disease.
  • Healthcare costs:  There’s a potential to reduce healthcare costs if focus changes to prevention rather than treatment of disease and also if we can streamline drug development.

But, let’s also look at the potential downsides:

  • Data storage:  We already know that gene sequencing of an individual produces MASSIVE amounts of data.  The sequencing of a million people is going to produce unimaginable amounts of data.  How will we store all this big data and analyze it to make any sense of it?
  • Privacy/Security:  Is there anything more personal and vulnerable to cyber-attack than your genetic information?  I wonder if the $5 million allotted to this effort will really be enough.
  • Data relevance:  According to Obama, the data will be collected from 1 million volunteers.  That’s not a random cross-section of people in the US and may not represent the population adequately in order to make population health recommendations.  I’d argue that only certain types of people would sign up and other types won’t.  Would we miss certain disorders? Would we see too much of another disorder in a population of volunteers for this project?
  • Culture:  How do we prevent people from abusing this information and not using it to screen potential partners, deny insurance coverage, denying jobs?  How will this affect culture?  Will we be cultivating a different kind of racism, on a genetic basis?  Are we on the path to a real-life version of the movie Gattaca?
  • Ownership:  Who will claim ownership of this data?  Will it be the government?  I’d argue that this data should be owned by the individuals from whom it comes, but the experience of the genetic sequencing (now genetic ancestry) company 23 & Me is worrisome.  For the time being, the FDA has blocked the company from allowing individuals from having access to their own genetic information.  Will this change as part of the new initiative or not?
  • Drug/device industry:  Genetic research and development of treatments has been very promising and productive in the private sector.  How will government involvement affect research?  Will our governmental agencies work cooperatively with them or competitively?  Again, if the experience of 23 & Me is any indication, this is a real concern.
  • Healthcare Costs:  Yes, there’s potential to decrease costs, but there’s also potential in greatly increasing costs.  It’s no small feat to genetically map a population, analyze the information, store it safely and securely, and develop recommendations and treatments.

Part of me is excited about the potential and I think that it probably does take a huge governmental initiative to tackle and impact population health, but another part of me is concerned about government invading a space that is so personal and private and I wonder if it could slow down progress in developing life-saving therapies in the private sector.

What do you think?  Are you excited or nervous about President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative?