Flipping the Script

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Walgreens dispenses vital support through HIV-specialized pharmacies

Wellness Watch by Chael Needle

Individuals living with HIV/AIDS and in treatment may not know that one pharmacy may be different from the next when it comes to addressing their needs. Walgreens, a national pharmacy chain, wants them to know that HIV-sensitive support exists in a safe environment—free-of-charge, discreet and confidential, and without having to make an appointment.

Across the country and in Puerto Rico, more than 700 Walgreens’ HIV-specialized pharmacies have created vital links among patients, healthcare providers, and community-based organizations and local health departments, thanks to the dedication of more than 2,000 Walgreens pharmacists. Each pharmacist has at least twenty-five hours of extensive training a year through HIV/AIDS-accredited programs that cover medical as well as social and cultural issues. Other pharmacy employees receive special HIV sensitivity training, as well.

Building on its dedicated commitment to providing community-based support to individuals living with HIV/AIDS in the first decade of the pandemic, Walgreens started an HIV-specialized pharmacy pilot program in the mid-nineties in Chicago, San Francisco, and Miami. “We were looking at ways to address the needs of the population, specifically [related to] HIV, above and beyond a typical retail pharmacy,” says Glen Pietrandoni, RPh, AAHIVP, senior manager for HIV/AIDS and hepatitis pharmacy services at Walgreens. “Today we have HIV-specialized pharmacies all over the country, not just in the big markets and not just in the neighborhoods that you might expect. We have impacted neighborhoods, big and small, all over the country. We want to put those services where they’re needed.”

When it comes to living with HIV, “we all know that the medications play a huge role in the success of that patient’s well being and the course of their health condition,” says Pietrandoni. Toward this end, Walgreens keeps HIV-related medications in stock to make sure adherence is easier. Patients need not fear missing a day or two of dosing while they seek out another pharmacy if theirs does not have the needed meds.

In addition, Walgreens refills are synchronized so that patients can obtain their medications at the same time. And patients are alerted about refills by phone-call reminders. With their HIV-related expertise, Walgreens pharmacists also check for drug interactions between over-the-counter medications and prescriptions.

But at Walgreens, the support is not just about dispensing medications. Pharmacists can provide “information, support, suggestions, and basically [act as] a resource for people living with any complex health condition,” Pietrandoni reminds. For example, in the context of Walgreens’ HIV-specialized pharmacies, pharmacists communicate with healthcare providers and case managers to address not just adherence but overall care. The pharmacies also work with local ASOs in order to address HIV in the context of other health needs. Walgreens’ approach is holistic, not focused on HIV disease as an isolated issue.

Walgreens is sensitive to the potential stigma of visiting a pharmacy for HIV-related reasons. There is no signage at these pharmacies to indicate that they are HIV-specialized. Consultations in person or by phone are confidential. Walgreens also has a hotline for HIV-related questions (8 a.m.–10 p.m. EST, daily) as well as round-the-clock pharmacy staff chat capability through its Web site. In select areas, prescription delivery upon request is available for those who may have transportation problems or have concerns about stigma.

Walgreens HIV-specialized pharmacies address a variety of other needs specific to living with HIV/AIDS, too, such as nutritional and health support; access to financial support programs that may eliminate or reduce co-pays; and access to insurance advocates to help coordinate benefits.

Walgreens also addresses each community’s health needs, including HIV and hepatitis C testing advice and at-home testing kits as well as education for HIV-negative customers about the importance of HIV prevention and testing. Walgreens recently partnered with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Greater Than AIDS campaign to hold testing events all across the country at select HIV-specialized pharmacies. Walgreens also advocates for HIV-related issues on the national level.

Next year, Walgreens will begin a new educational training program through the American Academy of HIV Medicine, an organization that certifies HIV healthcare specialists, and the AIDS Training and Education Centers. As these centers exist all over the country, the community ties will be even stronger than before, says Pietrandoni.

“The patient-pharmacist relationship is important to long-term care of people living with any chronic disease,” says Pietrandoni in closing. Even if it is to say ‘hello’ and ‘how’s your dog?’ and ‘where are you going on vacation?’—I think that type of relationship helps empower patients to do better and to take more ownership of their health condition, and actually come out and ask for that help. We’re there to receive those questions and to reach out to patients and help when we can.”

To find the nearest HIV-specialized location, log on to HIV.Walgreens.com.

Chael Needle reported on Aeras and its support of a robust TB vaccine pipeline in the November 2012 issue.

January 2013

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