In the 1990s, indie bookstores reeled as big-box booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders moved into towns from coast to coast. The David and Goliath struggle was even dramatized in the hit romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail” starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. In the movie, Hanks’ character suffers serious developer’s remorse when he simultaneously falls for Ryan’s character and — oops! — puts her family-owned bookstore out of business by opening one of his mega-chain bookstores around the corner.
The early to mid-2000s brought with them an even bigger Goliath: the internet and, more specifically, Amazon. One by one, the big booksellers went bankrupt as e-reader and online book sales soared. But despite many doomsday predictions, the little guys stood. They’re still standing. In fact, they’re growing.
How is this possible?
Indie bookstores offer their customers something that neither the big bookstores nor Amazon will ever be able to offer: a personal connection with their customers. As a Publisher’s Weekly article put it, “Indie bookstores offer community, discovery and beauty; readers feel good about keeping their hard-earned money recirculating in their local communities.”
Likewise, many people are now predicting that brick and mortar pharmacies will go the way of the dodo as more and more Americans manage their prescriptions online and Amazon continues to eye the prescription drug and pharmaceuticals market. Chain pharmacies may pass, but, like indie bookstores, community pharmacies will stand. Here’s why:
Community pharmacies have deep relationships with patients — and Amazon never will.
Community pharmacies have what a drone can never deliver: face-to-face care.
Human interaction pays meaningful and irreplaceable dividends in improving a patient’s spirits and therefore their health. Whether that interaction comes in something as simple as a hug or handshake, there is no denying that injecting human touch into the health equation just makes patients feel better. Think of it as chicken soup for the soul… over the counter.
Interacting with a live person also uniquely positions community pharmacies to capture something I like to call “in vivo” or live data.
Live data is all of the information that pharmacists can gather in a face-to-face interaction that provides them with a broader portrait of the patient’s health. Instead of just remotely and facelessly filling prescriptions (like Amazon does), real-life pharmacists are in a position to ask whether or not a medication is resolving a patient’s problem, whether a patient is suffering any side effects (and suggest ways to mitigate those effects), ask whether a patient is up-to-date on their vaccinations, and then even administer the ones they need.
An engaged pharmacist can also tell whether a patient is adhering to their prescribed medications and getting all of their refills on time (medication adherence is, incidentally, a $300 billion problem annually), and they can tell if a patient who sees multiple providers has been prescribed too many painkillers or prescriptions with potential drug interactions. More importantly, they can intervene.
Community pharmacists are on the ground, and therefore, they are able to help their patients manage chronic conditions — diabetes, obesity, smoking cessation and a host of other illnesses — as well as provide other critical preventive care measures that will keep Americans out of emergency rooms and out of debt. The importance of this cannot be understated, especially as the fate of the national health care system continues to remain in a state of uncertainty.
In short, community pharmacists, like indie bookstores, offer their customers a personal connection — they are more than just a means to fulfill a prescription.
Community Pharmacies Must Keep Going Beyond The Fill
This does represent a paradigm shift for many pharmacies.
Being local or family-owned is not enough to weather the storm. Pharmacies that will outlast the chains, mail order, shrinking profit margins and the Goliath in the wings (Amazon) must employ a business model that centers on its customer relationships and community contribution — not just on refilling prescriptions. In other words, community pharmacies must go “beyond the fill.”
The industry is shifting from a fee-for-service model (transactional refilling prescriptions and selling cough syrup) to a value-based one (i.e., How are your patients doing? Are your adherence levels going up?).
Despite the fact that many community pharmacies already offer direct delivery to patients, trying to compete with Amazon on strictly convenience (online ordering, for example) will not be enough. Amazon has an entire infrastructure in place to be the best at that sort of thing. Live data — that wealth of information that happens as the result of a human interaction and all of the opportunities to better serve the patient that arise as a result — is the thing community pharmacies have that Amazon never will.
Many community pharmacies already have deep roots in their communities and go beyond the fill every day as valued healthcare providers; those who don’t will want to consider how best to expand their role and shift to a patient-centric approach. As long as community pharmacies keep using human relationships to their advantage, there will always be a place for them — as there is for indie bookstores — even when Amazon comes knocking.