Rite Aid wants to put your pharmacist in your pocket via your smartphone

Rite Aid CEO Heyward Donigan says the future of pharmacy should be full-service and “portable”.

Heyward Donigan RiteAid CEO
Heyward Donigan CEO of RiteAid (Illustration by RiteAid and iStock/Washington Post)

Rite Aid President and CEO Heyward Donigan has a vision for the future of the pharmaceutical industry: people should be able to consult their local pharmacists via video or text from their smartphone.

Donigan, who took on the lead role just months before the coronavirus pandemic, has been scrambling to modernize the 60-year-old company that is currently under restructuring.

“During covid, everyone understood the power of pharmacies,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It really accelerated the world’s view of what a pharmacist can do.”

Rite Aid, which operates more than 2,300 stores in the United States, posted revenue of $24.6 billion in its fiscal year ended February, up 2.2% from the last year. But it’s net losses widened to $538.5 million from $100.1 million due to store closures and other charges.

During its first two years of work, Donigan closed about 150 unprofitable stores, planned to roll out low-footprint stores in underserved markets, moved employees away from businesses, and implemented more technology to automate certain tasks. She also moved the company’s headquarters to a modern waterfront campus at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia from Camp Hill, Penn. It’s designed around meetings versus individual workspaces and opens in July.

“I view remote opportunities not only as more efficient, but also as an opportunity to get to know people in different geographies with more diversity than we ever could have before,” she said.

Donigan explains his vision for the future of pharmacy and its impact on workers. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: How is Rite Aid navigating the future of work?

A: We are remote first for our corporate associates, and we have a camera-on policy. So love seeing your pet, meeting your husband, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, Instacart delivery.

We also take a break in the middle of the day. Don’t book appointments between 12pm and 1pm if you can avoid it. Go for a walk, walk your dog. And turn off the cameras if you can at 6:30 p.m. No Friday afternoon meetings. We regularly have off-site visits. We have a rigorous covid protocol still in place for our in-person meetings. We need two antigen tests.

Shortly before the pandemic, Rite Aid began transitioning to a remote workplace with teams meeting in satellite offices to collaborate. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: How is Rite Aid reinventing the workplace?

A: We actually got started before the pandemic. When I came to the company, I said, “You can live wherever you want.” We created WebEx back then and trained everyone. I was hiring people from all over the country and allowing them to work from home and come in for meetings and collaboration. So when the pandemic hit, we were pretty well prepared. When we saw the benefits of working remotely, we realized it was an opportunity to become a more modern workforce and not debate whether to return to the office.

The other thing it really gave us was an opportunity to think about real estate in a different way. Although Camp Hill had been the company’s headquarters for many years, getting there was very difficult.

Q: What are Rite Aid’s Regional Collaborating Centers?

A: What we found was that people were actively flying to meet offsite clients, successfully work remotely, or go to happy hours together, and the space was going unused. So we ended up not renting these spaces anymore. We are, however, committed to building our new technology center in Raleigh, NC, where our technology teams will go to collaborate, design and perform lab work.

Q: What are Rite Aid’s technology teams working on?

A: Technology underpins the ability of our pharmacists to deliver the right medicines, quality, clinical interventions. A workflow tool prompts pharmacists to make [an outreach]. We also have a major refresher of all of our technology infrastructure, and new processes and platforms being developed right now.

Then we have our point-of-sale systems in our stores, which are quite outdated. We are really moving towards a cloud enterprise. We are developing a native application. We have third party delivery. We have a digital marketplace.

Rite Aid CEO Heyward Donigan says his customers demand their pharmacy be full-service and “portable”. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: How does Rite Aid’s technology help pharmacists target customers with the care they may need?

A: ‘Cause we get all the data [based on prior visits, purchases and health plans] — I know this may sound a little scary — we know if you have been taking your medication regularly. So when you come to the store, we can suggest a test you might need, physically give you one, or suggest you go see your doctor.

The new elements are the testing capabilities we can provide to a customer, an expanded vaccine supply, and holistic therapies. Health plans provide us with information about their members and the specific clinical categories they want us to work on.

Q: What technical improvements has Rite Aid made to respond to the covid crisis and how will they impact the business going forward?

A: We had to create an online vaccine planner from scratch almost in a few weeks because the federal government required it. It is a tool that will now be used for all our vaccines, not just covid. We’ve also radically changed our platform to allow people to renew and pay for a prescription on the app or in the browser and have it delivered. It was really important because people were afraid to go to stores. We launched Instacart and DoorDash. You can shop from the Rite Aid store on Amazon. Videoconferencing was launched nationwide.

Q: How have your digital partnerships affected the business?

A: We have grown these digital delivery and proximity channels by 50% over last year, and expect another 50% or more growth this year. Prescriptions are almost back to where they were before covid, and we are seeing an increase in people wanting their prescriptions delivered. What we will continue to work on is how to continue to evolve our engagement with pharmacists in store, over the phone, [or via] chat or video.

Q: How is Rite Aid dealing with labor shortages?

A: We have overcome the worst. Hotspots tend to be consistently in the Pacific Northwest and western Pennsylvania. That much, [the shortage is primarily for] pharmacists and technicians. We moved work remotely, took calls from stores and sent them to the call center. These are changes that will last.

Heyward Donigan became president and CEO of Rite AID a few months before the covid pandemic. The main task, she said, was to modernize the 60-year-old company. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: What does the pharmacy of the future look like?

A: For me, the pharmacy of the future will always start with your phone. I do not consider, as a customer, a pharmacy as a store. No one knows prescription drugs better than a pharmacist, and I would like [my doctor] to talk to my pharmacist on my phone about prescriptions I should take. The evolution of this profession is to know how to make the pharmacist transportable.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in building this future?

A: The challenge is how to enable engagement in this omnichannel way. We are building this integrated full-service pharmacy. For us, it’s just about connecting all the assets.

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