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Booz & Co says pharmacy chains will increasingly be called upon to provide simple medical services as the market for basic health care expands.

With new incentives and business strategies coming into play to repair and improve the health-care system, local pharmacies are positioned to help meet the top two goals of reform: providing convenient, expanded access to medical care and controlling costs, an article in the company’s business + strategy contends.

Pharmacies — many of them operated by large publicly traded companies such as Walgreens (WAG), CVS (CVS), and Wal-Mart (WMT) — have already begun to reach beyond their traditional role as pill dispensers to meet new demands from patients. Consumers, who have become more responsible for their own medical care in recent years, are turning to retail pharmacies for help in managing medical conditions and their out-of-pocket health-care spending. Walmart’s US$4 generic drugs program, for example, which offers a wide range of prescription medication and 1,000 over-the-counter medications at $4 for a 30-day supply, has had a major impact on making medication more affordable — especially because other pharmacies have quickly followed suit.

The pharmacy of the future could take the current assets of trust, access, skill and cost to the next level.

In the current environment, where easy access to cost-effective care is paramount, the pharmacy offers four significant advantages.

1. Trust. Patients already have more contact with pharmacists than other health-care providers and appear to greatly value their pharmacists’ advice. A 2007 Booz & Company survey found that pharmacists ranked first in patient trust when it came to getting information about pharmaceuticals, ahead of consumer organizations such as Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports), doctors and government officials.

2. Access. The pharmacist is highly accessible. There is a pharmacy within 2.36 miles of any U.S. consumer, on average, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. In addition, in many areas, at least one local pharmacist is available 24 hours a day, with no appointment needed.

3. Skills and services. Pharmacists are highly trained health professionals, knowledgeable about a range of medical conditions and capable of delivering some advisory, diagnostic and treatment services. An increasing number of pharmacies also have a retail clinic on the premises, staffed by a nurse practitioner licensed to perform a range of primary care services and, in some cases, write prescriptions.

4. Cost. Retail pharmacies operate in a highly competitive business environment, and are already acting to keep the nation’s cost of prescription medications lower by promoting generics. Pharmacy-based retail clinics could often treat patients at a lower cost than physicians’ offices could for the same conditions. Most recently, pharmacies have been playing an important role in providing cost-effective immunizations, whereas 85% of physicians find immunization reimbursements inadequate.

Source: U.S. Pharmacy Chains to Play Bigger Role in Delivering Medical Services