Consumer Health Success – Walgreens Mobile 7/22/11

From Marc in response to rumors that RIM may discontinue the PlayBook: “Things are not going well for RIM, but they deny the PlayBook demise.“ I like that the official response from RIM was issued on Twitter.

Shifting gears a bit in the Consumer Health Success series after last week’s post on WebMD, I wanted to focus specifically on mobile health offerings as a component of a much larger business. For this I chose retail pharmacy and focused on Walgreens, though I tried the apps I found from other retail pharmacies as well to see how they stack up.

Why does mobile matter?

Intuitively we all know mobile is important because this is how people increasingly consume information and interact with the world around them. As such, it should definitely be one of the ways that health providers, payers, pharmacies and any other group in the health system interacts with patients and consumers.

That doesn’t necessarily mean mobile apps and mobile Web sites alone, as a more holistic mobile strategy is necessary. SMS, though without a real wow factor, is a valuable mobile tool we’ve seen used successfully in health for evidence-based and appointment reminders

What about how mobile affects consumers adoption of products and services? I’m fascinated by Facebook’s stats on mobile usage. One-third of facebook users, or 250 million people, access Facebook over mobile, and those mobile users are twice as active on Facebook than non-mobile users.

Understanding that Facebook’s user population is very different from the the population of big health care and Walgreens Pharmacy consumers though seniors are using Facebook more and more), this does show the power of mobile to increase user engagement and brand affinity.

Walgreens’ clear mobile superiority

Walgreens is doing a great job with mobile and is the clear frontrunner for retail pharmacies in terms of mobile strategy and offerings. Check out its mobile page. They have apps for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry; a mobile Web site; and prescription text alerts. You can even text FLU to a shortcode and get a response with the closest location for flu shots.

In addition to the diversity of mobile offerings, the mobile app itself is far better than that of its closest retail rival CVS. The iPhone app does "Refill-by-Scan", which allows a user to take a photo of the barcode on the pill bottle and have the refill automatically sent to the Walgreens Pharmacy of choice. According to Walgreens, this is the most commonly used method of mobile refill. The app also helps you locate flu shot locations, see your prescription history, and even order photo prints.

The prescription text alert services, which sends a text when your refill is ready to pick up, surpassed one million subscribers in March 2011. It has been around since March 2010.

I tested the CVS iPhone app as well. It doesn’t seem to be optimized for the retina display on my iPhone, so it didn’t really look great. It does allow you to refill prescriptions and see prescription history. It also lets you find MinuteClinic locations, check acceptable insurances, and even find prices (pictured above) for medical services offered. I really liked the cost information, as well as patient education about the services.

Why is Walgreens pushing — and I’m sure paying — for mobile?

Obviously Walgreens is pushing mobile to help build its brand and differentiate itself from competitors in terms of convenience to consumers. It’s doing this, as I was told by a close buddy that worked for a national retail pharmacy for a while, because "the ROI for anything that gets people into the store more frequently to pick up meds is almost immeasurable. That’s because they are bound to walk out with a lawn chair and a candy bar in addition to the meds."

What’s the point of this post?

Despite Walgreens’ motivations around money, shareholder interests, and lawn chair sales volume, there is real potential to help consumers get timely refills (also a benefit to Walgreens) and maybe even curb some of the estimated $300 billion per year in medication non-compliance costs. I’m not sure if that last part about reducing the financial burden of non-compliance is very realistic, but hey, it’d be nice if the app and refill reminders helped that at all.

That said, there are definite lessons to be learned. Walgreens and its mobile offerings, which I’d classify as a success given the number of text subscribers and iPhone reviews (~19,000), have a much easier time finding willing users than a health system would for its mobile offerings. There are probably several reasons for this, but the most important is that Walgreens is much more a part of the daily life of all consumers (chronic disease health care consumers included) and people will use services that make their consumer experience more convenient.

Most people with chronic diseases — and I’m not talking about the ones that are home bound, immobile, or in assisted living facilities — go to get meds at least once a month. Many of them only go to see their PCP once every three, six, or 12 months (we hope). Because of that, pharmacies and pharmacists are seen as a place where healthcare can be delivered to the masses. We see in-pharmacy clinics popping up, and if not a full-fledged clinic, then at least you can get your flu vaccine while you pick up your insulin.

Maybe the same applies to consumer and mobile health tools. Maybe consumer health companies should look beyond providers, payers, and employers to retail pharmacies as partners. They’ve certainly got better reach, though I’d bet you’d be hard pressed to prevent the Walgreens and CVSs of the world from doing it themselves. Still, it still seems to me to be worth a shot.

Travis Good is an MD/MBA and is involved with health IT startups.

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