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4 Lessons in Effective Disruption From Pharmacies’ ‘Telehealth’ Concept

Few businesses are being transformed as quickly and as massively as the drug-store industry. Much as today’s dominant pharmacy chains swept away the independent corner drug store a generation ago, trends based in healthcare, politics, technology and consumerism are rapidly reshaping its biggest surviving players, including Walgreens, Rite-Aid, CVS and the many other retailers, ranging from Walmart to Wegman’s, that also have pharmacy operations.

“Telehealth” is the latest trend to shake this industry to its foundations. The practice provides medical advice remotely online with the drug-store brand basically serving as the digital or physical platform, and chains are quickly ramping up experiments and rollouts.

“Mobile is at the center of how we gather information—driving our multi-screen content consumption.”

Walgreens, for example, now provides customers in four states with 24/7 access to board-certified physicians through mobile apps and promises to spread telehealth to a total of 25 states by the end of the year. Rite-Aid and Wegman’s, meanwhile, are experimenting with the telehealth concept by providing physical, self-contained “stations” for digital delivery of advice and some health-maintenance services right in their own stores.

Here are 4 lessons pharmacy-business CEOs are learning through the adoption of telehealth that other business leaders who are seeking to wreak major disruptions in their fields can apply to their businesses.

  1. Have a mobile-first mindset. The telehealth pioneers are starting with the idea that smartphones and other mobile devices are the primary means by which consumers will want to access doctors and other healthcare professionals remotely, and that they will want lots of handy apps to help them. “Mobile is at the center of how we gather information—driving our multi-screen content consumption,” wrote Tanya Shepley, senior vice president of Digitas, a marketing agency that works with pharmaceutical retailers, told MediaPost. “If designed from scratch today, a mobile-first mentality would rule the day.”
  1. Remember that consumers want autonomy. Medical care is one of those areas where Americans still are willing to leave the expert opinions to the professionals (although often not without a second opinion.) But like their peers in the drug-store business, all CEOs must understand that consumers increasingly want to be captains of their own lives in practically every area. That’s why, when it comes to telehealth, Walgreens also just announced an app that doesn’t need a physician as a third party: The chain launched an app for Apple Watch that directly helps patients manage their regimens, whether they are simple, once-daily reminders or multiple complex drug regimens.
  1. Build IP protection from the start. Given that litigation over digital-technology intellectual property is a huge industry in and of itself, any company starting with a powerful and disruptive new idea should have its patent-protection ducks in a row from the start. That didn’t seem to be the case in telehealth, however, because one of the biggest U.S. telehealth providers, American Well, already has filed a patent-infringement suit against a rival, Teladoc. At issue is which was practicing telehealth first—and whether either can protect what it does with a patent.
  1. Expect to attract regulators. Any business that cuts across as many industry lines and is as potentially transformative as telehealth will quickly attract government attention if not outright intervention. And sure enough, states are continuing to inject themselves into telehealth growth with measures such as “parity laws” that require certain telehealth services be reimbursed by insurance companies to the same extent as in-person services.

Disruption is a way of doing business for many CEOs nowadays. There is a lot they can learn from the disruptors in telehealth.



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