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Walgreens Exec Dissects Health Care Issues and COVID-19: Part 2

Written by Andrew Le, MD

PublishedApril 15, 2021

Welcome to the CEO Corner, where Buoy CEO and Co-founder Andrew Le, MD, sits down with industry leaders to chat about the provocative topics of today. Andrew recently spoke with Kevin Ban MD, chief medical officer at Walgreens, who has more than two decades of clinical experience and a track record for optimizing clinical programs, healthcare information systems, and patient safety. In Part 1, Kevin shares his personal story, including what drives him as a leader and the health care issues closest to his heart.

In Part 2 of the conversation, Andrew and Kevin dive deeper into Kevin’s experience setting up a COVID-19 response strategy for Walgreens over the past year, from testing to now vaccinating the American public.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Andrew Le, MD: Kevin, last time we spoke, you discussed the vaccine rollout and how that's top of mind for Walgreens right now. What would you say are the biggest challenges Walgreens has faced in thinking about the COVID-19 vaccine?

Kevin Ban, MD: I think our instinct would have been to immediately lean into the infrastructure that we have built in our stores, to first distribute, and then administer the vaccines. We had experience in doing these clinics, but just not at the scale needed for the Long-Term Care Facility program. We did, however, learn that the process we had built really is extremely scalable.

There were some early issues we had to deal with like determining appropriate supply for each facility. Firstly, the occupancy of the facilities was lower than we expected and therefore, we ended up with more vaccines. Secondly, in the early days, we encountered a significant amount of vaccine hesitancy. According to a February study from CDC, nearly 78% of the residents and 38% of staff got first-dose vaccinations, indicating early hesitancy. And all of a sudden, we found ourselves with too much vaccine supply. We acted quickly to redistribute vaccines to the next appropriate clinic, and we worked with the states to figure out which was the next eligible community that we should begin vaccinating. We needed to act quickly and thoughtfully on the fly. Now, through the federal retail pharmacy program, we are leaning into our footprint across the country and have begun vaccinating eligible populations in our stores and through off-site and mass vaccination clinics.

The mission has never been so palpable at Walgreens. I think we care a lot about what we do day in and day out, but people wake up every morning excited to do this work.

Andrew: That's really powerful to hear. On the topic of vaccine hesitancy, let’s talk about accessibility and availability. What are some of the challenges you're seeing in regard to social determinants of health as we continue to do this rollout?

Kevin: Like most complex problems, if you get it wrong or you make an assumption about what is driving a person's vaccine hesitancy, you risk being tone deaf. Vaccine hesitancy can be about mistrust of our national institutions. It can be a lack of understanding about exactly how these vaccines arrived at emergency use authorization. It could be as personal as, “I recently started cancer chemotherapy, will this vaccine interrupt my cancer treatment?”

You have to come at this from many different angles and that's what we do. We put together a group of people at Walgreens to make sure we’d get this right. Through our Vaccine Equity Initiative, we wanted to really make sure that we were thinking about access to vaccinations, that we were making education available and making sure people had access to that education. And then we wanted to create partnerships to be able to solve for the things that we couldn't do.

Equally important and one of the things that I'm really interested in and something that we've gotten into, is making sure that we are also leveraging our pharmacists to be that trusted voice in their communities. We’re focused on making sure we have thought leaders that resonate with people.

"If you make an assumption about what is driving a person's vaccine hesitancy, you risk being tone deaf."

Kevin Ban, MD

Generally speaking, there are three things that we’re homing in on. The first is transportation. Anytime you're talking about social determinants of health, you start to think about the barriers people are facing. We worked with the CDC to review the overlap between the CDC social vulnerability index and our stores to ensure access for the communities who needed it the most. But we found it wasn't enough. We began calling people we knew were vulnerable and in need of the vaccine to meet them where they were through off site clinics in civic centers or in churches. That first component, access to transportation, has led us to leverage technology. Particularly with vulnerable populations, we are prioritizing technology that increases access to information about the vaccine and allows them to schedule their appointment.

"We began calling people we knew were vulnerable and in need of the vaccine to meet them where they were through off site clinics in civic centers or in churches."

Kevin Ban, MD

Andrew: Makes complete sense and brings to mind Walgreens’ recent partnership with Uber.Can you give us a bit more background on how that came to be?

Kevin Ban: The “aha moment” for us was when we had located vaccination sites in vulnerable communities and realized we still had issues. Our partnership with Uber is designed to help solve the access problem in urban areas where we have stores in many neighborhoods, but not in every neighborhood. So far that program is in Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and El Paso, and we plan to expand beyond that as the vaccine becomes more available so everyone who wants the vaccine has access to one.

Andrew: That's really cool. So, from your standpoint, Kevin, how do you think we can further use technology to advance to a more equitable and accessible healthcare system?

Kevin: I think I'll approach this from 30,000 feet, and then I'll work my way down to boots on the ground. What I would say is that in my experience, we have a tendency to focus a lot on the what and we lose sight of why things are happening. I think one of the most powerful things that technology can bring is the aggregation of actionable data. At Walgreens, we're aggregating data around the distribution and administration of these vaccines and learning a lot about what prevents people from being vaccinated. My personal opinion is that technology is something that when it's used well, supports, facilitates and accelerates care. I still like to think of care as being this moment between a provider and a patient, and that has remained true throughout the pandemic.

Andrew: Thanks, Kevin – this has been a great conversation. Any closing thoughts?

Kevin: While the last year has been stressful and unprecedented, it has been very inspiring to join Walgreens at the start of the pandemic. I don't wish another 2020 on anyone, and I never want to do it again in my life but being able to immediately build strong relationships with people and get really complicated work done has been incredibly rewarding. And a major shoutout to all my team members at Walgreens, for their dedication and hard work to keep people safe - not only during the pandemic, but always. I can't thank you enough for your efforts.

About the participants:

Kevin Ban, MD is a board-certified emergency medicine physician with more than two decades of clinical experience and currently serves as the chief medical officer of Walgreens.

Andrew Le, MD, is the CEO and Co-founder of Buoy Health.