A pharmacist holds prescription medicine near a laptop
A pharmacist holds prescription medicine near a laptop - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Sometime during the past 20 or 30 years or so the public image of the pharmacist kind of changed. It went from that guy at your corner drugstore who had time to answer all your questions to the busy white-coated person behind a high counter at the end of a long aisle who takes your credit card and hands you your pills. This being the digital age, the old pharmacist is coming back, kinda. Walgreens and Rite Aid announced new programs this week to let customers chat online with pharmacists about whatever you want.

From the Marketplace health desk at WHYY, Gregory Warner reports.

Gregory Warner: Both programs allow you to log onto the website and have a registered pharmacist pop up in a live chat window to answer questions.

Ernie Richardsen is vice president of Pharmacy Purchasing at Rite Aid. He said the feature's already getting traffic from customers.

ERNIE RICHARDSEN: Well they're asking questions about, OK, does this product interact with this product, they may ask what do you recommend to help treat a fever.

Albert Wertheimer is a professor at Temple University School of Pharmacy. He says these online perks reflect the growing competition for customers at the big drug chains. These days you can fill your prescriptions online or at your grocery store. The copays are the same.

ALBERT WERTHEIMER: The only competitive advantage of one store over another is their degree of service and convenience.

The new live chat programs could also help pharmacists and their public image. A pharmacist in a store doesn't have the time or the privacy to answer questions.

JENNIFER REINHOLD: From that we've gotten the public perception of pharmacists as store clerks.

I caught up to Jen Reinhold, where she works at a physician's office in Delaware. She's a professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Studies show that allowing customers more access to pharmacists can increase medication compliance. Pharmacists can monitor drug interactions and side effects.

REINHOLD: If patients are able to call a pharmacist and find out that the nausea that they're having is likely not related to the medication they're on, they're more likely to continue taking it.

And that can keep patients out of the hospital, saving health costs for everybody. It also keeps people coming back to the pharmacy for refills.

In Philadelphia, I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

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Follow Gregory Warner at @radiogrego