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Walgreens guides provide real-time solutions

Health Guide MarcielValenci27 (left) helps customer SharKing Oak Park select right vitamins  Walgreens Madisst.  Oak Park Thursday October

Health Guide Marciela Valencia, 27, (left) helps customer Sharon King of Oak Park select the right vitamins at Walgreens on Madison st. in Oak Park Thursday, October 6, 2011. As part of Walgreens' store redos, it is stationing a full-time "health guide" near the pharmacy, equipped with an iPad, to answer customers' questions and provide medical data. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 30, 2011 8:02AM

Next time you walk into a Walgreens drugstore, an iPad-toting employee may just ask if you need help finding real-time health information.

The health guide — a new, full-time employee stationed at 16 Walgreens stores in the Chicago area — is part of the Deerfield-based company’s efforts to become what it calls a “health and daily living resource.”

“The concept is meant to create a pharmacy and health care ‘help desk’ where customers get solutions or referrals for their personal health questions,” said Colin Watts, Walgreen Co.’s chief innovation officer.

Another motive is at work: The health guide keeps patients from taking up valuable time with routine issues while expanding the pharmacist’s role beyond filling prescriptions. The pharmacist can be freed up to talk with patients one-on-one, even helping people compare Medicare Part D plans.

Why? Walgreen and other pharmacies are lobbying to qualify for bigger insurance reimbursements if they can show that their pharmacists are helping administer their customers’ medical care. The issue is of particular concern to Walgreen because it stands to lose $3 billion in sales next year if it cannot agree on payment issues with Express Scripts, which manages 90 million of the prescriptions that Walgreen now fills. Walgreen’s net sales totaled $72 billion in fiscal 2011.

It is also part of another trend: Technology is helping people take their medications when they should, as drugstores and doctors tackle a problem that costs $290 billion a year in otherwise avoidable medical spending, studies show.

“Mobile technologies have a huge role to play in health maintenance, even though there are still issues to be resolved in dealing with applications that are mission critical,” said Maribel Lopez, CEO of market research firm Lopez Research. “Health providers have to mitigate the challenges of security, privacy issues and regulatory compliance in order to reap mobile benefits.”

Walgreen’s health guides use the iPads to access information ranging from government databases to physician ratings to so-called “blue button” medical records available to U.S. military personnel and government employees and retirees.

A Chicago-based company, M-Healthcoach, won a competition against 24 other companies nationwide to develop the apps for Walgreen’s health guide initiative.

Walgreen’s challenge to software developers called for an app that would be easy to navigate and that combined information from a person’s prescription history at Walgreens with government and online resources.

M-Healthcoach CEO Aamer Ghaffar said he started M-Healthcoach a year ago with co-founders Imran Ahmad and Dr. Kalsoom Saleem, after the three recognized that they could sell mobile health apps to companies and to community health-care centers to help patients take their medications properly.

“We are trying to not only improve people’s quality of care, but also to reduce the patient load on doctors, pharmacies and emergency rooms,” said Ghaffar, 42, who worked in IT and computer systems at Northern Trust, Kemper Insurance, Motorola and other corporations before striking out on his own.

M-Healthcoach also has developed Flornce, an avatar whose abbreviated name is a takeoff of the celebrated nurse Florence Nightingale, and who provides a humanlike face to an online diagnostic tool.

“Flornce is a virtual caregiver,” Ghaffar said.

M-Healthcoach would like to see people access Flornce through their own computers or mobile devices or at iPads or kiosks set up at drugstores, acute-care centers and/or community health-care centers. The company hasn’t yet put Flornce out on the market, and the avatar is not part of Walgreen’s initiative.

When adopted, Flornce would analyze the information a person provides online about his or her age, weight, glucose reading, exercise routine and other factors, and suggest improvements. The Flornce app would reward users with coupons for acting in healthy ways.

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