Is Walgreens doing more for population health than you?

Last week, in a rather quiet announcement, Walgreens launched an extension of its "Balance Rewards" program that might just strike fear in any healthcare executive worried about the growing competitiveness of retail health.

Walgreen's new Balance Rewards for healthy choices™ initiative extends the retailer's loyalty program to reward members for participating in various health-relatWalgreensHealthyChoicesed programs and tracking progress toward health goals.

Balance Rewards members earn around 10 points for every $1 they spend at Walgreens. Under the new 'healthy choices' initiative, members can earn 250 points for setting a personal health goal, 20 points for every mile they walk or run and 20 points for weight tracking each day, among other incentives. Once a member earns 5,000 points, they earn a $5 dollar credit toward any Walgreen's purchase.

Members can enter the information through the Balance Rewards website, or by downloading a Walgreens app. The app is compatible with some 40 wearable devices and apps, including Fitbit, iHealth and MapMyFitness, so members can automatically sync their fitness data into the program app and earn points without lifting a finger.

The program is rather ingenious on Walgreen's part. It encourages healthy behavior, makes the retailer part of the healthcare solution, and drives traffic to Walgreen's website and app (where promotional information can be seen by users) and retail locations. Insurers can even sign on to set up specific goals for their members.

There are 8,215 Walgreens stores in the country, and 8 million Americans visit a Walgreens each day(!). There are three within a five-minute walk from my office here in Chicago, and an informal poll among Becker's workers found most of us visit a Walgreen's store more than once a week.

The launch of the program is yet another noteworthy move by the company to further brand itself as a healthcare provider — and not just a corner store that sometimes fills your prescriptions.

Participation in the program — at least for those with health apps and devices — is automatic, making it very convenient to participate. And the rewards have real value. Users save money on products they buy every day.

How can a health system match that?  

The truth is, matching that sort of incentive is pretty challenging.

We want our patients to exhibit healthy behaviors, but we don't offer much in exchange for their efforts.

While we are limited from some incentives due to various regulatory issues (e.g., Antikickback law), we haven't worked to make tracking behaviors easy for our patients. Take for example, manual entry of information into a patient portal. That certainly isn't easy.

Healthcare providers are struggling with population health: How do we keep our patients healthy? How do we get them to eat right? Exercise? Should they enter their behaviors into the patient portal?

There aren't easy answers to these questions, but Walgreens has taken a bold step in an attempt with its 'healthy rewards' program. The sheer reach of the retailer and its ability to provide incentives of value means the program could impact millions of Americans and their health.

Many health system leaders have a fear of retail health (and its ability to 'steal' patient volume or population), and the launch of this new program brings to mind the old adage: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Do you know of any health systems, or insurers for that matter, with health tracking programs as convenient and robust? I don't.

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