Let’s Grow Old Together

A New Online Resource Nurtures Self-Empowerment, a Supportive Community & the Pharmacist-Patient Dialogue
by Chael Needle

Andrew and Gregg strengthen the pharmacist-patient dialogue. Photo courtesy Walgreens

Turn up the volume on your device. As you meet each person face to face, you’ll want to hear what each expresses loud and clear, especially if you are newly diagnosed or living with HIV and still feel that you are not supported.

Nancy, thirty-two, shares advice on beginning treatment: “I have an alarm on my phone. And the reminder that I have on there, rather than, you know, ‘Take your meds,’ it actually says, ‘Choose life.’’’

On having people in your corner, Jack, twenty-seven, notes, “Your support system emotionally for me, I think, is even more important than your medication. When you have that, it just makes the entire process so much easier….”

Handwritten words unfurl above still photos of Kecia, thirty-two, to convey what has changed and what hasn’t as HIV-positive: “I had to accept being a woman with AIDS. That’s my medical record, but it doesn’t have to be my blueprint.”

The video/audio testimonials are found on “Let’s Grow Old Together,” a new, interactive HIV online community launched by Walgreens. “Let’s Grow Old Together” assures people living with HIV that living well is possible, and that, with added tools in your toolkit, such as support in your personal life and support from your pharmacist, your life’s dreams do not end with diagnosis. In all, seven Walgreens customers (and one pharmacist) share their experiences and advice across ten milestones that anticipate the physical, emotional, and social needs of people living with HIV: (1) Diagnosis; (2) Sharing Your Status; (3) Building Your Support Team; (4) Beginning Treatment; (5) Finding a Pharmacist; (6) Staying Healthy; (7) Relationships After Diagnosis; (8) Changing Treatment Plans; (9) Life Changes; and (10) Looking to the Future.

Visitors are encouraged to log on to the free-to-the-public site for information and inspiration. No one needs to register or reveal personal information to participate, so visitors can experience “Let’s Grow Old Together” in privacy, whether they wish to explore the resources, find an HIV-specialized pharmacy near them, or chat with a pharmacist in real time.

The online community extends Walgreens’ longstanding commitment to ensuring that its customers living with HIV have access to safe, compassionate care. The company takes pride in having been able to lend its expertise and support to the AIDS community from the very start of the epidemic, says Glen Pietrandoni, Senior Director of Virology, Walgreens, who joined the company in the 1970s. Around 1995, as protease inhibitors were on the verge of hitting the market and revolutionizing the health of people with HIV and AIDS, Walgreens took its efforts a step further by tailoring the pharmacy experience to the unique needs of people living with HIV/AIDS. Says Pietrandoni: “It’s actually at the local level where our pharmacists are involved with patients, with community groups, with the actual communities that are highly impacted, and that’s what’s most rewarding.”

Kathleen and Peter want to grow old together. Photo courtesy Walgreens

Across the country, Walgreens operates hundreds of HIV-specialized locations, whose pharmacists have gone through rigorous educational training, including courses in cultural competency and stigma awareness. A couple of years ago, Walgreens began 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. The company also partners with AIDS organizations on the local and national level, including Greater Than AIDS and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Several years ago, Walgreens launched a photo-based campaign titled, “Well Beyond HIV,” to raise awareness about aging with HIV.

Focused on patient-centered care and always on the look-out to improve health outcomes, Walgreens reached out to people living with HIV, newly diagnosed and long-term survivors, young and old, to see what their needs were and how their needs have evolved, notes Karyn Lee, Marketing Manager, Walgreens, about the brainstorming that evolved into “Let’s Grow Old Together.” The need for support along every step of the HIV journey emerged as a key insight, and sharing personal stories proved to be a highly engaging medium.
The idea of pharmacist-as-ally, someone who could provide a consistent level of support over time, also came to the fore. It articulated, more formally, what Walgreens has been doing all along—nurturing pharmacists to be actively engaged in the healthcare journeys of individuals, no matter their disease condition, and inviting individuals to be actively engaged in their health and empowered to start dialogues with their pharmacist.

This relationship is especially important when living with HIV. From resisting stigma, combatting isolation, and feeling a range of emotions, to oft-changed treatment plans, comorbidities, and adherence challenges, there’s a lot to navigate.

Pharmacists do more than dispense medications, reminds Pietrandoni. “They’re sometimes overlooked as a resource for support,” he adds, mentioning that they are often better positioned than healthcare providers to know individuals on a more holistic level. Speaking from past experience as a trained pharmacist, Pietrandoni mentions that of course one is laser-focused on dispensing the medications accurately, but the personal engagement with customers allows questions to be asked more openly and the ensuing dialogue to be more free-flowing.

Support works. Pietrandoni notes an increase in pharmacist engagement, thanks in part to HIV-specific training, which has included about ten percent of all Walgreens pharmacists, and also an increase in patient engagement. “We see persistence,” he shares. “Folks stay on the regimens longer…and obviously, especially in the earlier days, in particular, with the regimen, you didn’t want to have patients switching regimens too often because they wouldn’t have that many regimen options open.” Individuals are also staying with their Walgreens pharmacists longer, he adds. “[Overall] we see those regimens succeeding with people because of the relationships that they’ve built with pharmacists,” he offers, “and [also because] they don’t have to run to the doctor with every question….the pharmacist might be that person that might be able to help.”

At Walgreens, the dedicated pharmacists also assist individuals with figuring out copays and coverages, as well as prescription delivery if needed. “All those little things that actually do contribute to those adherence numbers, right?” Pietrandoni points out. “We’re doing some things that don’t really show up on any reports or any type of clinical data, [things] that the pharmacists do from day to day to make sure that the patient has their meds without any gaps.”

Jack. Photo courtesy Walgreens

Keeping individuals on HIV treatment engaged along the continuum of care is of utmost importance. Pietrandoni explains: ‘So, if you’re on an asthma drug, and you’re going to go to the pharmacy to get an inhaler, you go and you get it and go home. Well, nobody knows when you’re coming back because let’s say you may be adherent or you may be not, or whatever it might be. But, with our programs, we’re actually proactively watching for patients. So, we know, if you come on the first of the month and you’re getting a thirty-day supply, we know the day you’re going to need your refill. So, we’re ahead of that by a few days, and we’re actually looking for you; and we’re preparing a prescription and we’re calling a doctor, whatever we have to do to get the refill, [converse with] the insurance company, whatever it might be. We’re doing all that ahead of time so that, when you do come back, hopefully on the first or the next day, that it’ll all be prepared for you. And that, again, is that security net we give to the patients—we’ve got their back, we’re really trying to look out for them.”

But first and foremost, in order to engage and stay in care, individuals living with HIV need to believe that there is hope, that they will find a treatment regimen that works for them, that there’s a good chance that their health will be stabilized, that life can be normalized.

“Let’s Grow Old Together” counteracts the narrative that living with HIV is hopeless—it redirects visitors toward the future, toward better health outcomes, and a greater sense of self-empowerment. Even today, people living with HIV have been acculturated to believe that AIDS equals a death sentence or that living with HIV automatically means you’re going to be isolated, or that life is just going to be unrecognizably different.

Notes Lee, the creative forces behind the Walgreens online community were attuned to the fact that sometimes individuals living with HIV, particularly those who are newly diagnosed, may toggle back and forth between certainty and doubt. For example, individuals are aware that treament can confer better health outcomes and they can live longer, says Lee, “but still, at that moment of diagnosis, it still felt like, ‘Well, what is my life going to look like?’

“So, having that conversation, I think even in your mind; a lot of folks that we talked to were still kind of processing what that future looks like. That was one of the reasons that we did want to tap into that hope and that forward-looking perspective.” Says Lee, in closing, a hopeful and healthful future is what Walgreens is all about. In the right dosage, of course.

For more information, log on to: www.Walgreens.com/LetsGrowOldTogether.

Chael Needle interviewed artist Kelly L. Taylor for the January Gallery.