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We all make mistakes. Here’s what they taught me about putting consumers first

In an exclusive op-ed, Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Health, reflects on drive-through pharmacies, acquiring Aetna, and how he built a $250 billion business.

We all make mistakes. Here’s what they taught me about putting consumers first
[Photo: Prostock-Studio/iStock]
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There’s a fundamental shift happening in healthcare, and CVS Health is well positioned to lead the way. However, that will only happen if we continue to put consumers at the center of every decision we make. What people expect when it comes to healthcare changes every day, and it’s imperative that the industry keeps up and, where possible, stays ahead of the curve.

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Of course, that’s easier said than done.

In my time at CVS Health, we’ve made missteps that forced us to rethink our strategy and ultimately make changes to our business. In each case, we realized we had strayed from the essential principle that the consumer must be our top priority.

When drive-through pharmacies were first introduced by some of our competitors, our perhaps overly simplistic view was that by encouraging people to stay in their cars and never enter the store, we would lose foot traffic and, as a result, revenue. We resisted change—and missed the mark.

By not offering the convenience of the drive-through, we caused some people to stop using our pharmacy and stores entirely. Once we started building drive-throughs, we quickly reversed that trend, and today more than half of our nearly 10,000 stores offer this convenient option.

When we first became involved with MinuteClinic nearly two decades ago, the in-store option featured the slogan “You’re Sick, We’re Quick.” This was obviously meant to tout the benefits of simple, convenient care for patients suffering from relatively minor ailments like strep throat or sinus infections.

We soon realized that while convenience was important for consumers, focusing our efforts on this one attribute would prevent us from developing deeper patient relationships. That’s why over time we began to offer broader services like chronic disease management and a more personal experience. We also chose to invest heavily in our certified family nurse practitioners and physician assistants who provide service to millions of patients every year.

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Today’s consumer has even higher expectations for how, when, and where they want to receive care. So we keep evolving, building on consumer-influenced milestones like our decision to stop selling tobacco products five years ago and our 2018 acquisition of managed healthcare company Aetna.

There’s perhaps no better demonstration of this evolution than our HealthHUB model, which launched in Houston earlier this year and will expand to a projected 1,500 locations by the end of 2021. New pharmacy support programs, expanded MinuteClinic services, new product categories, and more are grounded in personalization, right down to the care concierge who greets you when entering the store. The HealthHUB model was developed in direct response to consumer needs and will continue to evolve as those needs change.

So far, early results have been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve seen higher prescription volume, more MinuteClinic visits, and an increase in front store traffic. Our pharmacists are now able to engage patients on a much deeper level, and those discussions can have a significant impact on patient health. We’re also helping patients avoid trips to the emergency room and other costly centers of care. From a measurement standpoint, overall customer satisfaction at our HealthHUB locations is meaningfully higher than at the rest of our stores.

While we haven’t always been right, these examples demonstrate how prioritizing the needs of consumers can have a transformative effect on healthcare. But we can’t do it alone. Some continue to focus on being first to market with a shiny new offering or capability, regardless of its true value. I encourage leaders across the industry to instead double down on their commitment to learning from and reacting to consumer needs in real time.

That shift in mentality is not only good for business but would go a long way toward addressing skyrocketing healthcare costs that remain a serious threat to the economy. More importantly, putting the consumer first can have an enduring impact on the health of our country.

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Larry J. Merlo is president and CEO of CVS Health.