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Walgreens May Help Solve U.S. Healthcare Crisis
Business Journal

Walgreens May Help Solve U.S. Healthcare Crisis

Walgreens' Healthcare Clinics can treat dozens of minor medical problems before they turn into major health issues

by Patrick Whiston and Jennifer Robison

At Walgreens' Healthcare Clinics, patients rarely wait more than 20 minutes, and many services are available for less than $100.

"There's an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease, an aging population, a shortage of primary care physicians, and millions of newly insured Americans. Those are serious [healthcare] challenges," says Heather Helle, Walgreens' divisional vice president, consumer solutions group. "But we've got an incredible footprint here at Walgreens. We believe that by extending access to healthcare through use of our clinics, we can be part of the solution."

We've all heard the sobering numbers attached to the U.S. healthcare dilemma. Healthcare costs America $2.8 trillion a year, and those costs are increasing at 3.7% a year. Over the next decade, annual healthcare costs will increase by $1 trillion. It doesn't seem likely that the local Walgreens could do anything to prevent that.

But Walgreens is doing something significant in its more than 400 Healthcare Clinic locations across the U.S. There, nurse practitioners and physician assistants offer services including treatment of illnesses, minor injuries, and skin conditions; preventive services including vaccines, physicals, and screenings; and monitoring and management of chronic illnesses. They're open seven days a week and into the evenings, and they accept walk-ins and scheduled appointments.

Patients rarely wait more than 20 minutes, many services are available for less than $100, and the clinics accept most insurance plans. Patients will know their charges and position in the queue in advance because Healthcare Clinic posts this information on screens in the waiting area. After a patient visit, a nurse practitioner or physician assistant sends the records to the patient's regular doctor (with patient/parent permission), walks him or her out with a discharge summary, and calls a day or two later to check in.

Now, none of this is unheard of. Doctors dispense vaccines, emergency medical services are available most hours of the day, and many healthcare facilities check up on patients. There are even a few places that do all of that. But doing all of that and making it an engaging experience for the patient is incredibly rare. Three out of four Healthcare Clinic patients are fully engaged, according to Gallup's customer engagement survey. That puts Healthcare Clinic at select Walgreens in the top 10% of any organization of any type that Gallup has ever studied.

Deliberate focus on patients

This dedicated attention to patients is part of a careful design. "We have an intentional, deliberate focus on patients," says Heidi Wold, Walgreens vice president of operations, consumer solutions group. "We find out what they want and we deliver it, and we constantly analyze customer engagement results and glean market- or clinic-specific data so we can change provider-specific things when we need to."

Walgreens has been working with Gallup on customer engagement since 2008, so it has several iterations of customer engagement results to analyze. "We've found that the right [people] can provide a great patient experience," Wold says. "We provide the environment so they can deliver a differentiated and personalized patient experience."

And providing the right environment is the key. Since 2008, Healthcare Clinic has also used Gallup's Q12 survey to measure employee engagement. "We absolutely believe there's a fundamental and important connection between employee engagement and patient engagement, and we're very attuned to listening," says Helle. "The nurse practitioners and physician assistants on the front line who care for our patients day in and day out provide valuable, insightful feedback."

Walgreens uses the Q12 to monitor the healthcare providers' employee engagement. But the company doesn't just issue the survey and call it a day. Walgreens enlists the support of a regional "Providers Council" of elected nurse practitioners and physician assistants who bring ideas and problems to upper management. New nurse practitioners and physician assistants are "twinned," as Walgreens calls it, with established peers who serve as mentors. The clinics have frequent "Voice of the Field" conference calls with senior, regional, and clinic leaders. And Walgreens maintains an internal website that is updated regularly to provide training, information, and recognition. These efforts provide Walgreens with additional feedback and help further engage clinic healthcare providers.

Helle and other members of her team occasionally schedule a day to visit one of the clinics, working as greeters and medical concierges, to get a close look at the provider/patient dynamic. "We're in continuous learning mode, relentlessly focused on improvement," Helle says. "We learn a lot by walking the proverbial mile in their shoes. And we can see firsthand how we can better serve our employees because we believe if we take care of our team members, they, in turn, can take better care of our patients."

That kind of care and attention is why Walgreens has such consistently high patient engagement scores across all of its Healthcare Clinic locations; the range is less than three-tenths of a percentage point. "I think what instills trust in patients is the experience they have with the provider in the clinic. To a patient, that nurse practitioner or physician assistant is the brand to them," says Helle. "One of the things I think our nurse practitioners and physician assistants do exceedingly well is take the time to listen to that patient, to understand their individual needs, and then create a treatment plan that's mindful of that patient's holistic situation."

Preventing the preventable

There's no way that Walgreens alone can erase a $2.8 trillion annual expenditure on healthcare. But the clinics can make it easy to get the flu vaccine on the way home from work. They can make it inexpensive to get your sore throat examined and checked for strep. They can make their clinics a pleasant, caring place to get a diabetes screening; provide counseling for dealing with a diagnosis; and offer a nurse practitioner or physician assistant who calls in a few days to see how you are doing.

All those things matter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Chronic diseases are the most common and costly of all health problems, but they are also the most preventable." They are also responsible for more than 75% of healthcare costs. Many health problems, however, are left untreated because medical care can be expensive, inconvenient, or inaccessible. Walgreens makes it easy to get attention from an engaged and engaging professional before a minor medical problem turns into a serious -- and seriously expensive -- one. "The noble purpose of this company is helping people get, stay, and live well," says Helle. "We can be a strong partner with the primary care physician and an incredible resource for patients in the communities that we serve."

By making a difference for each patient who walks into Healthcare Clinic, Walgreens can also create an enormous and positive benefit to the American economy. If everyone had access to early, affordable, and convenient healthcare, America would be a lot closer to preventing the chronic conditions that cost 75% of U.S. healthcare dollars. Patients within reach of Healthcare Clinic at select Walgreens have a head start. That is how Healthcare Clinic at select Walgreens may help solve the U.S. healthcare crisis.


Patrick Whiston is a Managing Consultant at Gallup.
Jennifer Robison is a Senior Editor of the Gallup Business Journal.

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