Walgreens Partners With MDLive To Roll Out Telehealth Visits

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Walgreens announces that it will begin offering telehealth consultations to its customers, beginning immediately. The retail pharmacy giant has forged a strategic partnership with MDLive, a digital health startup focused on building a presence in the US telehealth market, to facilitate the actual consultations.

The new feature will be incorporated into Walgreen’s quickly growing digital health app. According to Walgreens, the service will be immediately available to residents of California and Michigan, with plans of expanding to those in Illinois by the end of 2015. What’s notable about this ramp-up plan is that it seems unnecessarily slow, given that MDLive is already operating in all 50 states. One can only speculate as to the reason, but it is likely that MDLive is going to need time to build up enough doctors in each state to meet the added demand. The company has both the capital and the national footprint to scale. It raised a $23 million funding round in January 2014, and has already inked partnerships with several other major players in the healthcare space, including Cigna. Through its Walgreen’s partnership, the company will charge $49 per visit for each consultation.

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Walgreens, by anyone’s standard, has been one of the most innovative players in digital health as of late. Walgreens was the first retail pharmacy chain to push back against the perception that retail pharmacies were just glorified convenience stores. Now, Walgreens and CVS are in a virtual arms race to reinvent themselves as innovative community health centers. The company’s mobile app is an innovation leader among digital health startups working in the medication adherence space.  Among its notable features, the app provides automatic reminders to help patients remember to take their pills, and connects patients with pharmacists through remote consultations if they have questions about their prescription. To make prescription refills easier, the app helps users process refill requests with an easy to use barcode scanner. It also allows users to transfer a prescription to any Walgreen’s pharmacy so that prescriptions can be picked up at a local store, even when out of town. Now Walgreens will add telehealth services to the app. The idea presumably being that connecting patients with doctors on the Walgreen’s app will ensure that any prescriptions generated from the consultation will automatically come to Walgreens.

In contrast, CVS has designed its telehealth pilot to be store-based, integrating it with their MinuteClinic locations. For CVS, telehealth is a tool that is used to supplement the MinuteClinic model in rural areas where a PA or nurse practitioner cannot be staffed full-time. Under this model, CVS patients arrive at the MinuteClinic and are initially seen by a licensed practical nurse, before then being remotely connected with a PA for a more comprehensive exam. Both approaches have merit, but it is clear that CVS, with its 900 MinuteClinics, is reinventing itself as a brick-and-mortar primary care provider, while Walgreens, and its much smaller clinic footprint, is building a digital health platform to capitalize on primary care.


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