Committed to Collaborations
Walgreens Pharmacy Helps Individuals Connect to Care
by Chael Needle
Walgreens may be busy in its effort to help roll out COVID-19 vaccinations, but the nationwide pharmacy has not forgotten other vital concerns during a pandemic that has seen individuals disengage from care due to social distancing concerns and (perceived and real) limitations on healthcare site visits. Even in non-COVID times, engagement in care, especially for individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS, has been an ongoing concern, and Walgreens has worked to dismantle barriers to care and tailor their efforts to help individuals with their HIV testing and treatment needs.
Walgreens has an extensive nationwide network of over 85,000 pharmacy team members across more than 9,000 retail pharmacies and over 300 community-based specialty pharmacies, all serving as health touchpoints to provide care for the those living with or at-risk of HIV, “ Brad McElya, PharmD, Walgreens Director of Specialty Health Solutions, told A&U.
Asked how HIV-specialized locations are chosen, he responded: “HIV specialized locations are chosen based upon the needs of the communities that we serve. Our specialized network overlays very well with Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America’s target states and counties.”
Via email, Dr. McElya filled us in on how Walgreens helps with HIV treatment management, PrEP services, and using technology to keep individuals connected to pharmacists.
Chael Needle: Briefly, how has Walgreens’ mission to support individuals living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS evolved over the years?
Brad McElya, PharmD: Walgreens has been committed to supporting people living with HIV/AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. With a pharmacy team that has expertise in HIV embedded in neighborhoods nationwide, coupled with long-standing collaborations at both the community and national level, we are uniquely positioned to serve as a trusted leader in HIV education and care across prevention, testing and treatment.
Walgreens has established long-standing collaborations with organizations to provide services to help prevent, test, and treat HIV. I am incredibly proud to say that we have partnered with these organizations to really make a difference in ending the HIV epidemic:
• Greater Than AIDS is a leading national public information response from KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) focused on the U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic in communities most affected.
• Since 2011, Greater than AIDS and Walgreens have joined with health departments and HIV service organizations across the country to provide more than 57,000 free HIV tests in Walgreens stores in support of National HIV Testing Day.
• The mission of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is to enhance the health and wellbeing of all Americans, by providing for effective health and human services and by fostering sound, sustained advances in the sciences underlying medicine, public health, and social services.
• Walgreens supports the Ready, Set, PrEP nationwide effort led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that provides PrEP medications at no cost to those who qualify. The program aims to expand access to PrEP medications, reduce new HIV infections, and bring us one step closer to ending the HIV epidemic.
To give you a more recent example, in 2020, Walgreens and our partner, Greater Than AIDS, changed how we approached National HIV Testing Day. Typically we host in-person testing events, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, we needed to meet people and community-based organizations that are a part of Greater Than AIDS where they are. We distributed over 10,000 self-test kits so that patients could still be aware of their HIV status and receive information about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, and also learn more about the Ready, Set, PrEP the program.
How else does Walgreens work to bring its HIV services customers who may live in pharmacy deserts or may not be engaged fully in care?
Walgreens is really there for communities nationwide. This is accomplished in a few ways—first with proximity, as approximately 78% of Americans live within five miles of a Walgreens so we really do cover a wide breadth of the U.S. population. But you can also speak with a pharmacist by phone or online via our Pharmacy Chat tool to answer any questions you might have about HIV prevention and treatment in a compassionate, confidential manner.
Second is our approach to holistic care that addresses the patient’s needs in three main ways. The first is through HIV testing, because a patient cannot be empowered to make their own health decisions without first knowing their HIV status. Secondly, our care that we provide for patients living with HIV is centered on treatment as prevention, knowing that if we assist in helping our patients in their efforts to have their viral loads suppressed, they will not transmit HIV to another individual through HIV prevention methods such as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP. In addition, Walgreens is deeply committed to helping to end the HIV epidemic through our efforts in additional prevention methods such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Lastly, Walgreens has long-standing collaborations with organizations at the community, regional and national levels that can supplement our efforts in providing services to help prevent, test, and treat HIV [like Ready, Set, PrEP mentioned previously]….And it all starts with your local Walgreens pharmacists serving as a resource to help meet your healthcare needs.
Often having the knowledge alone will not encourage an individual to take action or take action consistently (masks to prevent COVID, for example). And, in the context of HIV, PrEP has been available for a while, but uptake has arguably been slow. How does Walgreens create an environment that allows for PrEP or potential PrEP users to take that next step to consider and then select a prevention option?
You’re absolutely right—we have the tools in our arsenal to effectively end the epidemic, from rapid testing to medicines for both prevention and treatment. And yet despite the game-changing developments in HIV prevention and treatment, not everyone is benefiting equally from these advances. A number of barriers exist that can discourage people from learning their HIV status as well as accessing information and care about prevention, testing and treatment. These can range from social stigma to the lack of awareness and education, to challenges in accessing care and even mistrust in the U.S. healthcare system and healthcare providers.
From a Walgreens perspective, we want to address three key issues:
• Lack of awareness and education: The latest estimates indicate that effective prevention and treatment are not adequately reaching people who could benefit most, and certain groups continue to be disproportionately affected. Through campaigns like this one, we hope to bridge the knowledge gap and make sure more people know about these advances.
• Lack of access to care: Eight out of ten new HIV diagnoses are a result of people who are not in HIV care.i This underscores the impact of undiagnosed and untreated HIV as well as the critical need to expand access to HIV services, including removing barriers like proximity and cost. With Walgreens in neighborhoods across the country and our pharmacists being accessible by phone or online, we’re available to provide care for those living with or at-risk of HIV.
• Social stigma: HIV-related stigma and discrimination can be a debilitating barrier, preventing individuals from learning their HIV status, disclosing their status, and even accessing appropriate care and treatment, weakening their ability to protect themselves from getting or transmitting HIV, and to stay healthy. Many of the groups affected by HIV may also have a distrust in the medical system as healthcare providers can also be a source of stigma. This is why Walgreens pharmacists undergo special training to ensure we can create a stigma-free experience. Our pharmacists can offer that judgment-free counsel and care.
I really believe that we are at this key moment in time where if we all do our part, we can actually help end the epidemic. We can do this in part by shifting the conversation so that people know the role that pharmacists and companies like Walgreens can play in terms of serving as a trusted source for HIV.
iLi Z, Purcell DW, Sansom SL, Hayes D, Hall HI. Vital Signs: HIV Transmission Along the Continuum of Care — United States, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019; 68:267–272. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6811e1.
For more information, visit Walgreens.com/HIV.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.