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Pharmacy chains plan to expand health care offerings

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Pedestrians walk by a CVS store on February 16, 2021 in San Anselmo, California.

Though major pharmacy chains, like CVS and Walgreens, are looking to expand primary health care services, they're currently battling employee burnout like many other health providers. Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

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A CDC panel recommended third shots of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for all adults over 18 on Friday, as kids 5-11 are also lining up for shots — the majority of them at local pharmacies.

CVS Health announced this week it plans to focus stores more on health care services, like vaccinations and screening tests, even as it closes hundreds of locations where traditional sales have declined. Walgreens is also investing more in primary care clinics at stores.

The pandemic showed the promise of these retail locations to meet everyday health needs, as well as some of the challenges involved.

Pharmacies have proven a convenient option for vaccines, which is why Alex Malke booked her recent flu shot at a Walgreens in Sarasota, Florida.

“This particular location has good parking, and trying to get in to see a doctor is a huge challenge,” she said.

But when Malke showed up, the pharmacy corner was overwhelmed. Technicians were working the drive-thru COVID test window while answering phones and collecting prescriptions. 

“The tech I talked to obviously just had a lot going on,” Malke said.

Pharmacies around the country have been dealing with staffing shortages as demands for new services have increased, said Veronica Vernon, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Butler University.

“Just like with all of health care, pharmacists and technicians are definitely feeling the unfortunate burnout of the effect of working through a pandemic,” she said.

CVS has been on a hiring spree, adding 25,000 new roles in September. But the pipeline isn’t getting bigger fast enough. Enrollment in pharmacy programs has dropped over the last decade. And there’s increasing competition for staff from mail operations like Amazon, where it’s often less stressful than in public-facing jobs.

“It’s been challenging to find folks to fill these roles,” Vernon said. “They don’t want to have to be answering phones all day or dealing with insurance all day.”

Expanding health care services will only mean more of that kind of work, said health management professor Robert Field at Drexel University, which is a Marketplace underwriter. Pharmacies will need more capacity for billing and managing medical records. And they’ll need more private space.

“I think people are not going to be comfortable dressing down and putting on a gown while other people are shopping for their Tylenol and toothpaste,” Field said.

Though there should be room to shrink those Tylenol and toothpaste displays, however, as more people buy those products online.

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