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Pharmacies look to leverage flu shots

Alina Pastoriza Garcia, ARNP-NP-C, administers a flu vaccination to Russell Waddey at the CVS/pharmacy's MinuteClinic on December 4, 2012 in Miami, Fla.

It's flu season. And by all accounts it's shaping up to be a bad one. And that means all those people who've been waiting to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot are gonna get it now.

It also means the drug store industry may get the vaccine payoff it's been waiting for. Today, one in five adults gets their flu shot from a pharmacy. That’s why drug store chains are trying to make it as easy as possible to get a vaccine.

“We have about 1,700 24-hour stores,” says Jim Cohn a spokesman for Walgreens, the nation’s largest pharmacy chain.

He says just three years ago half of all the chain’s pharmacists were even trained to administer the vaccines. “We’re now at a point where virtually all of our 27,000 pharmacists can provide flu shots and a broad range of immunizations.”

But Matthew Coffina, an analyst with Morningstar, says all those pharmacists giving all those shots doesn’t boost the bottom line as much as you’d think.

“Even though it’s administering over five million vaccines, it’s probably a couple hundred million dollars, versus total revenue of Walgreens of $74 billion or so,” he says.

Coffina says the real value for these retailers is that it’s a foot in the door to becoming so much more than some sleepy pill counter.

“You know maybe somebody comes in for a flu shot initially, but they also find out that their kid can get a sports physical, and perhaps down the road Walgreens and CVS will use their clinics to become more involved in disease management,” he says.

Drexel public health policy professor Robert Field says he’s been watching drug stores become a more significant player in health care. And he thinks that’s going to help everyone keep costs down.

“First, it’s going to improve access to the system. Secondly you are going to have lower cost providers offering basic services that you don’t really need a physician for,” he says.

And if you need toothpaste -- it’s just an aisle away.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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