Retail pharmacies have managed as best they can during the pandemic. Now they need to look out over the horizon and focus on a long-term strategy.

COVID-19 has disrupted the retail industry, and retail pharmacies are no exception. They have had to think fast and find creative ways to get medications to patients during the pandemic. These options, many of them involving contactless delivery, have worked as a temporary fix, but they are not long-term solutions.

As the nation heads into winter and a possible second wave of COVID-19 infections, the solutions that retail pharmacies have used so far have some very clear drawbacks, not only in terms of safety and security, but also in terms of cost and ongoing patient care.

U.S. Mail

With many patients working from home and limiting their trips outdoors, many retail pharmacies began using the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to deliver medications.

This isn’t new for the USPS. In fact, it delivers up to 1.2 billion prescriptions annually, according to a statement by the National Association of Letter Carriers. It also delivers 90 percent of all Veterans Administration (VA) mail order prescriptions.

Unfortunately, the USPS has experienced delays from operational changes and the removal of sorting machines this year. Delivery delays have caused patients to miss taking medications on time. It also disproportionately impacts our veterans, since the VA relies so heavily on mail order to get prescriptions to its patients.

In response, the American Pharmacists Association released a statement opposing mandatory mail order pharmacy required by many PBMs. The organization said the requirement not only impacts the patient-pharmacist relationship

Delivery Services

In addition to U.S. mail, retail pharmacies have used other delivery services to get medications to patients, but there have been issues with these, too. One is temperature control. Medications delivered by FedEx or UPS (and the USPS) are not transported in climate-controlled vehicles. And unless a patient needs to sign for the medication, the delivery is often left on the doorstep.

Doorstep delivery not only exposes the medication to temperature fluctuations, but also porch pirates. Not surprisingly, the increase in online shopping during the pandemic has led to a spike in porch thefts. A report states that 25 million Americans had a package stolen from their doorsteps between March and May 2020.

Retail pharmacies that use courier services or task their own staff to deliver medications to people’s homes also face risks. Courier services rely on third-party drivers with their own cars, bikes, or even public transportation to make deliveries, so there is no guarantee that the medication will be transported in a climate-controlled vehicle.

There’s also the issue of security. For example, when I spoke to the manager of a grocery store with an on-site pharmacy, he said prescriptions could be bundled with InstaCart orders. While he might see this as efficient, it doesn’t address the hazards of entrusting the safe delivery of a prescription with an anonymous courier. In fact, MedPage Today reported that some patient prescriptions delivered by couriers had been tampered with.

Curbside Pickup

When COVID-19 hit, many retail pharmacies without drive-through options began offering curbside pickup for patients. It allowed patients to remain in their cars and limit contact with others while getting their prescriptions. The challenge with continuing this service is three-fold.

First, for pharmacies located in regions with inclement weather, it’s not a long-term solution, not for the patients or the staff. Nor is it entirely feasible in regions with baking temperatures in the summer. Second, depending on the location of the pharmacy within the building or the layout of the parking lot nearby, curbside can be a logistical nightmare. Lastly, it’s not cost-effective or efficient. It requires a pharmacy employee

Overall impact of contactless delivery options on retail pharmacies

It’s clear that these new methods to deliver medications in the era of COVID-19 are not always safe or secure options. But there are other concerns, too.

For one, they’re expensive. Paying for mail and delivery services isn’t cheap. Neither is staffing curbside pickup.

Another concern is the impact on foot traffic within the store. While early refills and orders for 90-day supplies are up, a Drug Store News report  from April 2020 shows that people aren’t doing as much shopping at retail pharmacies. Even though 71 percent of consumers surveyed continue to shop at grocery stores during the pandemic, only 44 percent are shopping at drug stores for similar items.

The same report indicates patients are shifting where they buy prescriptions. Before the pandemic, 60 percent picked up prescriptions at a retail pharmacy. Now 41 percent get their prescriptions filled elsewhere, which translates to fewer customers in the store.

A safe, secure solution for pharmacy patients

Whether we’re dealing with a pandemic or not, the desire for contactless delivery will continue to drive patient decisions. People have grown accustomed to it, not just for convenience, but these days out of necessity. And retailers know their customers want choices on how they shop. So, what can retail pharmacists do to deliver prescriptions safely and securely, provide continuous patient care, and increase foot traffic within the store?

ScriptCenter lets pharmacy staff maintain control of filling and checking prescriptions. Once the prescriptions are loaded into ScriptCenter, the system securely tracks pickup and payment.

For patients, the benefits are clear, with convenience and access at the top of the list. For example, patients don’t have to wait in line to pick up their prescriptions. They simply enter the necessary information into the kiosk or locker’s touchscreen to gain access to their medications. They can also retrieve their prescriptions after the pharmacy has closed. This allows retail pharmacies to offer longer pharmacy hours without additional staff.

Even though ScriptCenter kiosks and lockers are self-service, the system fully supports a pharmacy’s entire formulary and allows for a meaningful patient-pharmacist relationship. The patient consults with the pharmacist via a two-way audio/video system built into ScriptCenter. 

ScriptCenter automated prescription pickup also increases revenue by driving store foot traffic and enhancing brand loyalty.

Retail pharmacies have managed as best they can during the pandemic. Now they need a long-term strategy, not just temporary fixes. COVID-19 won’t be here forever, but consumer desire for contactless delivery, choice, and self-service are here to stay.

By providing a convenient option for prescription pickup, ScriptCenter ensures patients have safe, secure, and timely access to their prescriptions. And better access to prescriptions leads to better health outcomes.


About the Author:

Valerie Gionis is a biotechnology and healthcare leader who creates and delivers products and services that offer authentic customer engagement and improved patient outcomes.  She has 20 years of diverse experience in marketing and sales strategy, business development, and customer experience management.  She is known for fostering meaningful and long-lasting relationships while delivering high-quality marketing and customer satisfaction programs. Connect with Valerie on LinkedIn.