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How Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer is making primary care a primary goal

The pandemic revealed drastic inequities in healthcare. Brewer knows that urgent care isn’t a long-term solution. Here’s what she’s building instead.

How Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer is making primary care a primary goal
Roz Brewer, CEO, Walgreens Boots Alliance[Photo: Lawrence Agyei]

This story is part of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2022. Explore the full list of companies that are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture.

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Walgreens administered 56 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine over the past year. It’s now preparing to make primary care an even bigger part of its overall healthcare strategy. In October, CEO Roz Brewer—who took the helm of parent company Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) in March 2021 after serving as COO of Starbucks for four years—unveiled the new Walgreens Health unit. At the center of the initiative is an expanded partnership with primary care clinic company VillageMD to open Village Medical at Walgreens clinics. The companies have already opened 80 clinics across 10 markets since their initial 2019 pilot. They’re now planning 200 clinics by the end of 2022—and 600 by the end of 2025. (WBA invested $1 billion in VillageMD in 2020 and an additional $5.2 billion in 2021, giving it an ownership stake.) With this model, the retailer devotes 3,000 square feet of store space to an eight-room physician’s office with a lab testing unit. Rather than serving as in-store urgent care clinics (such as CVS Health’s MinuteClinics), these outposts are designed to engender personalized patient relationships and offer coordinated care with Walgreens pharmacists. As Walgreens scales these clinics, it’s partnering with insurers to open Walgreens Health Corners, in-store spaces staffed by nurses or pharmacists who will provide additional services, including preventative screenings, to members of certain health plans. The company is also building its support capabilities for patients on medication for complex conditions and branching into post–acute care. It’s all part of Brewer’s vision of using Walgreens’s more than 9,000 stores to improve health outcomes. Here’s how she’s transforming the drugstore chain into a wide-ranging healthcare company.

How has overseeing Walgreens’s vaccination push affected your thinking about what healthcare should look like in the United States? The pandemic struck some communities harder than others, and at first everyone thought, Well, this has to do with [preexisting] health concerns and those kinds of things. But it’s the dep­rivation of care over a period of time and lack of access to great healthcare that put people in the position where they’re more sensitive to the virus and pandemics. It makes you begin to think, How did we get here, and why is there this bifurcation? And then you begin to look at living conditions and environments and access to healthcare and access to work and access to education and all of those things. So first and foremost, it put a spotlight on inequities.

On the positive side of things, from where I sit as a former scientist [Brewer majored in chemistry and was a research technician at Kimberly-Clark], I am amazed at how the science moved, the decision-making, and how quickly we were able to validate the testing around the antivirals and then the actual vaccines. So it’s also renewed my faith in science and technology, and it’s given me energy.

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What’s driving Walgreens’s bigger foray into healthcare, from a business perspective? WBA had done a fantastic job in some of its entities, but long-term growth was in question. We began to look at the continuum of healthcare across the United States and said we think we can be the world’s leading partner in reimagining localized healthcare for all. It helped me think about a new growth engine for the company. It helped us all realize that if we could dispense meds, administer vaccines, and have a pharmacist talking to a patient [at our pharmacies], could we [add more of] our VillageMD units?

Making healthcare more affordable and navigable is also a personal issue for you, correct? It is very personal for me. My mom was sick up until [her death in] 2011. [She had] kidney failure as an outcome from diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Her care was very delicate, and it took all of us—my sister, my brother-in-law, and I—to manage her care for years beyond her passing. She had excellent insurance, but we couldn’t control her bills. They kept coming, so we just paid them. But we did that because we could; there’s no way many Americans can do that. What [Walgreens is] able to do now is to bring transparency to what it costs to care for yourself. It’ll eventually put the patient in control. 

How is a Village Medical at Walgreens different from the in-store, urgent care clinics that other chains have opened, including Walgreens, in the past? In order for those to be successful, you have to have so many [exam] fees paid [by patients]. It’s just so transactional. But your health is not transactional, not if you want to take care of yourself for the long haul. So that model—I personally tried [implementing] it when I was [leading southeastern operations for] Walmart, and Walmart has moved away from it. We were using part-time physicians who were moonlighting. You never saw the same physician, so there was no relationship. The VillageMD physicians are hand selected [by VillageMD], and we create a staff around them. What we’re building is the relationship, not episodic urgent care. The most expensive care is episodic, when you end up spending money for an ambulance or show up in the emergency room. This eventually, hopefully, will pull down the cost of healthcare in the entire system.

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We typically report out things like the amount of foot traffic in our stores and our sales by category. But we’re going to start reporting out numbers in terms of our impact on reducing either the cost of healthcare or improving health outcomes. It’s obviously bigger than us. But we’re big enough to start it, with 9,100 physical units and the number of patients we see.

You’re also partnering with health insurers to develop Health Corners and recently opened 10 of these in-store spaces with Blue Shield of California. What’s the goal of these? Health Corners are like having a health coach in the store. We’ll have 3,000 of those [at scale, with 1,200 planned for the next five years], and they’ll be attached to insurers. At our Health Corners, you could see a variety of clinicians. We will likely have a registered nurse or pharmacist, but it very well could be a social worker. Right now, people need a lot of help emotionally, so we are helping them get services for emotional support, as well as physical support. 

You’re one of two Black women running a Fortune 500 company. The other is Thasunda Duckett of TIAA. What does this mean to you, and what does it say about the business community as a whole? I knew there weren’t many African American or African American women CEOs, but as I was going through the interview process, I wasn’t saying, I’m going to do this to make the number change. [But] there should be more African American women sitting in these seats. I’m very uncomfortable being [one of two], so I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do about it. I’m trying to up my game on mentoring and telling my story as broadly as I can, reaching back more than I ever have before, making people believe that an African American woman can do this job. And if you are an African American woman, I hope that you will.

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