In the wake of the much-publicized announcement by CVS-Caremark that it would stop selling tobacco products in CVS stores by this fall, pharmacy companies are continuing to reposition themselves as true health care companies, not just general retailers.

This month, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that CVS has joined with competitors Walgreens, Kroger, Rite Aid and Safeway to endorse the Blue Button initiative, giving pharmacy customers an easy way to download and share their prescription records. The five companies also will work together "towards standardizing patient prescription information to fuel the growth of private-sector applications and services that can add value to this basic health information," according to the ONC announcement.

"Walgreens is focused on being an important piece of the healthcare fabric," says Keith Dunleavy, M.D., chairman, president and CEO of data analytics firm Inovalon. "They want to be part of it, not replace it."

Bowie, Md.-based Inovalon announced a deal January 30 to provide a patient assessment tool to the more than 400 Walgreens Healthcare Clinic locations nationwide. The assessment helps Healthcare Clinic nurse practitioners provide recommended preventive care and create full encounter notes that then can be sent electronically to primary care physicians, according to Dunleavy.

Last week, CVS and Walgreens said they are participating in a new initiative called the Alliance for Connected Care. Also involved are telecommunications giant Verizon Communications, health insurer WellPoint, device manufacturer Welch Allyn, medical supplier Cardinal Health and telehealth companies HealthSpot, Teladoc, Doctor on Demand, MDLive and GE-Intel Care Innovations.

Headed by former U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), the alliance will be advocating policy and regulatory changes to promote telehealth and remote patient monitoring.

The Connected Care Alliance is mainly about addressing regulatory problems that are holding back wider adoption of telehealth, including state laws that prohibit physicians from delivering care remotely to patients in other states, according to HealthSpot Founder and CEO Steve Cashman. HealthSpot is another company jumping into the fray by providing a new model of remote care. With the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act potentially bringing millions of newly insured people into the healthcare system, retail telehealth will help address the national shortage of primary care physicians, he says.

"Technology is the best way to address this," Cashman says. And the pharmacy is an ideal location, he adds.

In January, HealthSpot, of Dublin, Ohio, introduced a walk-in telehealth kiosk that brings live video chats with physicians to retail clinics. The kiosk is outfitted with medical devices to take vital signs and other basic readings, then beam the data over the Internet to the remote doctor. "The pharmacy creates value for their customer base," Cashman explains.

He said to expect an announcement by the end of March about partnerships with at least one major pharmacy chain.

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