Walgreens' Mobile Strategy Combines Payments, Health Care and Rewards

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Third in a series. Read part one and part two.

Walgreens' vision for creating a patient-centered pharmacy combines mobile health care, digital health technologies and its Balance Rewards prepaid and loyalty system.

As the nation’s largest drugstore chain with more than 8,200 stores, Walgreens has the scale nationally to implement such an ambitious technology program and to have a positive impact,  Walgreens President Alex Gourlay said in a presentation last month at the HIMSS15 conference, a health care technology event.

“We have 8 million customers who come across our brand every single day—6 million in drugstores and 2 million in digital assets,” he said. Emphasizing that Walgreens is “a pharmacy first,” Gourlay preached about the benefits of its digital transformation including refilling prescriptions.

In 2011, the company launched “Refill by Scan” providing customers with the ability to refill prescriptions by scanning bar codes on medicine bottles using smartphone cameras. According to Gourlay, Walgreens customers fill more than one prescription per second using mobile devices. “It used to take five minutes to refill your prescription when using the old telephone system. Now, it takes under 30 seconds,” he said.

In 2013, the company introduced the Balance Financial Prepaid MasterCard, its first private-label prepaid card, which doubles as a store loyalty card. Members of the chain's Balance Rewards program can link their loyalty account to the prepaid card and present only the Balance Financial card to earn points for purchases. Users can manage their prepaid accounts with in-store kiosks, online or through a mobile app.

Gourlay predicts that mobile platforms, in particular, are the key to empowering Walgreens customers.

“There’s more emphasis than ever on owning your health through wearables and other connected devices and apps like MyFitnessPal,” he said. “As personalization helps consumers to keep track of more and more data, we need to provide them with actionable personalized insights using that data.”

Mobile Apps, Rewards Program  

Walgreens now offers a whole suite of mobile pharmacy/health care services including an app that recommends/schedules immunizations and a separate one that notifies users when to take medications and in what doses. “This helps with medication adherence, one of the biggest opportunities we have in the health care system—not just here in the U.S. but right across the world,” asserts Gourlay     

Another app—Pharmacy Chat—allows customers to talk to Walgreens’ pharmacists through their smartphones, providing 24/7 access to these “trusted professionals,” said Gourlay. Currently, Walgreens conducts more than 9,600 pharmacy chats per week which are free to customers. Just last month, the company launched a new feature as part of a digital health advisor dashboard that “allows our licensed pharmacists to proactively reach out to our customers and ask them if they need any assistance or advice in meeting their health care goals,” he said. 

Walgreens also developed an Apple Watch app “designed to help patients manage their medication regimes” by letting them know when it’s time to take their medication via alerts. “The [Apple] Watch is a great way to improve medication adherence—we believe—because tasks can be accomplished with a quick glance and the touch of a button,” he observes.

In order to drive behavioral changes leading to improved health outcomes, the Walgreens Balance Rewards program was created to award points to customers for completing certain healthy activities and adopting healthier lifestyles, with the opportunity to redeem points and save on merchandise at Walgreens in-store or online. Under the rewards program with 82 million active members, points are given for “various activities from walking and running to recording blood pressure and blood glucose readings,” according to Gourlay.

Last month, Walgreens and UnitedHealthcare announced that they are collaborating to integrate Walgreens Balance Rewards with UnitedHealthcare’s health-incentive initiative Reward Me to help people adopt healthy behaviors. As part of a pilot program, UnitedHealthcare plan participants in Arizona and Illinois will be able to access the program via the Reward Me tab on UnitedHealthcare’s mobile app Health4Me and earn Walgreens Balance Rewards loyalty points by completing healthy activities such as daily exercise, eating fruits and vegetables, and logging sufficient sleep.

Wearable Technology

In January, Walgreens and Qualcomm Life announced a collaboration to seamlessly connect medical devices and personal health data. Under the partnership, Walgreens is utilizing Qualcomm Life’s cloud-based 2net Platform that enables end-to-end interoperability for medical devices and apps to aggregate wireless health device data into its network of mobile apps and websites.

“Walgreens has also launched rewards for using wearables, making the first retail program to financially reward customers not just for buying a fitness wearable but for connecting it to Walgreens and continuing to reach their health and wellness goals,” said Gourlay. “But, we’re not just talking about fitness trackers. Patients with chronic conditions can also sync their glucometers and blood pressure readers and start earning points for logging their readings on a daily basis.”

2net will support Walgreens’ Balance Rewards for healthy choices program with “robust medical device connectivity and care coordination capabilities” such as remote patient monitoring, transitional care support and chronic care management. Compatible Walgreens devices include a wrist-worn blood pressure cuff, a traditional blood pressure cuff and a blood glucose meter.

“Hypertensive and diabetic patients who use a wearable device and walk one mile per day are 7 percent more adherent than those who don’t do both of these things,” according to Gourlay. “And, biometric devices such as glucometers and blood pressure monitors are also associated with greater medication adherence.”

Virtual Coaching, Telemedicine

In another teaming, Walgreens partnered this year with WebMD by putting its virtual wellness coaching program, called Digital Health Advisor, on Walgreens’ website. The program covers such issues as smoking cessation, weight loss, better eating and exercise, and managing stress and chronic conditions.

“Chronic patients produce a lot of health data and tracking this data is especially important,” he said. “In order to really make an impact on population health, we knew we needed to do more. We needed an evidence-based digital coaching program that could deliver health outcomes.”  

WebMD has integrated its Healthy Target mobile health improvement program with Walgreens’ Balance Rewards program that offers discounted pricing. Users of Healthy Target can track their data from activity trackers, wireless scales and glucometers, and receive relevant content and tips. Under the partnership, WebMD users also have iPhone mobile access to online prescription refills, prescription transfers and clinic appointment scheduling.

When it comes to telemedicine, Walgreens and telehealth provider MDLIVE have introduced a new service offering that will give Walgreens website users 24/7 access to U.S. board-certified physicians through its mobile app. The service uses Walgreens’ “digital footprint to facilitate virtual visits with doctors on demand” said Gourlay, who added that it is initially available to users in California and Michigan, with plans to roll it out to more than 25 states by the end of 2015.

“It is going to have a huge measurable impact on patient outcomes,” concluded Gourlay.

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