Start Planning Now for the 2015–16 Flu Season
Offering flu vaccines is both a big opportunity and a competitive necessity. To ensure being ready for next flu season, start planning now.
“Immunizations are now a standard of care in our industry,” said Cindy Mende Russell of County Market Pharmacy in Springfield, Illinois.
This assertion is backed up by:
- Data. According to the CDC, during the 2014–15 flu season, about 46% of the American population, representing about 140 million people, will get flu shots. About 25% of adults and almost 5% of children will get their flu shots at a pharmacy.[i] This is an increase in the number of people getting flu shots and marks a huge increase for pharmacies, compared to seven years ago when only about 7% of adults got their flu shots in pharmacies. The CDC attributes this increase in part to changes in state laws. In 1999 only 22 states allowed pharmacists to administer flu shots; all 50 states now allow it.[ii]
- Reality. At least 27 million flu shots were administered at pharmacies in the 2014–15 flu season. However, the opportunity remains enormous as more than 50% of all Americans still did not receive a flu shot. Further, chains such as Walgreen’s have declared that flu shots and other immunizations are a key part of their business strategy.[iii]
The Rationale for Offering Flu Vaccines
With consumers increasingly comfortable getting vaccinations in locations other than in a physician’s office, many community pharmacies already provide flu vaccines, as well as other types of immunizations. Community pharmacies see vaccinations as an opportunity and a necessity to protect their business since large national chains are using immunizations as a strategy to convert patients to their pharmacies.
- Increase revenues. A community pharmacy might be able to provide hundreds of flu shots per year, making a decent margin on each one and generating good incremental revenue. With the percentage of adults getting flu vaccines still extremely low, there remains much upside potential in offering flu vaccinations. In addition, once a pharmacy offers flu shots, it can leverage its efforts by offering other vaccinations, such as for travel and back-to-school. (Regulations of what vaccinations a pharmacist can administer differ by state. Click here for state-level information.)
- Bring customers in the door. Even more important than the margin on each flu shot is the potential revenue from each customer on that particular visit to your store, and on future visits. Offering a flu shot brings people in and gives you the opportunity to market to them and build a relationship with them. Ms. Russell’s experience has been that, “If someone gets a flu shot in your store, even if they don’t fill their prescriptions there, they end up coming back the following year for their flu shot. It’s the first place they think of.” Being the first place a customer thinks of is always good for business.
- Continue positioning your pharmacy as a local health resource. The evolution of pharmacy is underway, with pharmacies playing an increasingly significant role in customers’ health and healthcare. Offering vaccinations is just one more step in this evolution — and in how consumers think about community pharmacy.
- Reinforce your commitment to patients with diabetes. According to the CDC, people with diabetes are three times more likely to be hospitalized from the flu and its complications than other people. The flu may also interfere with blood glucose levels. Leverage your existing relationships with diabetes patients and their family members to discuss the importance of getting vaccinated. Visit the CDC’s “Diabetes and the Flu” page for additional information.
“Offering vaccines is one more thing we can do as a community service to our customers, and it ultimately helps our bottom line.”
– Ron Gill, Halpin’s Pharmacy Health Mart, Spokane, Washington
Walgreen’s and other pharmacy and grocery chains view immunizations as an important part of their strategy. Many chains are actively marketing that they offer flu shots and other vaccines. Community pharmacies that fail to provide flu shots, or actively promote their offering, may find themselves at a disadvantage.
Dealing with Unexpected Demand
County Market Pharmacy has been administering flu vaccines since 2007. Cindy Mende Russell’s experience led her to realize that each year’s flu is unpredictable, and it is very difficult to predict the amount of flu vaccine supply to have on hand. Looking back, as the 2013 flu season got underway, Russell recounted that “it appeared to be an average flu season.”
But that changed quickly. A January 11, 2013 CDC report said that 24 states and New York City were reporting high levels of influenza-like illness. Media outlets such as the New York Times, the Huffington Post and other sources ran stories using words like “outbreak” and “epidemic.”[iv] Ms. Russell said that once news outlets started reporting the high levels of flu, “things went crazy.”
Ms. Russell felt fortunate that her store had a great deal of flu vaccine in stock that year. In fact, when the news of 2013’s flu severity broke, County Market ended up being one of the few pharmacies in Springfield, Illinois, that still had flu vaccines. The store’s supply was highlighted on the local news, which further boosted demand.
The situation was similar for Ron Gill at Halpin’s Pharmacy Health Mart. For years his store has participated in McKesson’s Flu Vaccine Pre-Order Program, which helps pharmacies manage their supply risk. When demand surged and he needed more vaccine, McKesson had it in stock and was able to provide it to Halpin’s.
By having adequate inventory, both of these pharmacies were able to meet unexpected demand and serve the customers in their community.
While it seems that next year’s flu season is a long way off, it is important to start planning ahead now. Important steps include:
- Making a commitment to vaccinations. Deciding to offer vaccinations takes a commitment that includes understanding your state’s regulations, being set up to bill for immunizations, allocating adequate space, deciding which vaccinations to offer, purchasing supplies, and marketing the service. The opportunity can be significant, but offering immunizations requires making a commitment to do it right.
- Ensuring certification. The first step in offering vaccinations is becoming certified. For a process that can take three to six months from getting certified to offering vaccines in your pharmacy, now is a good time to start preparing. You should check with your state board of pharmacy to find out what type of additional licensing they may require. Also, immunization training information is available in different geographies from the American Pharmacists Association.
- Securing adequate supply in advance. As the prior experiences of County Market Pharmacy and Halpin’s Pharmacy Health Mart make clear, demand is unpredictable, and having an adequate supply of flu vaccine is essential. McKesson’s Flu Vaccine Pre-Order Program helps pharmacies plan for the season by securing their product choices early and at a competitive price. McKesson’s program offers a unique “order as needed” delivery option so each customer’s pre-order supply is reserved at the local distribution center throughout the season, saving them storage space at the store and helping to manage cash flow. Pre-ordering for 2015–16 flu vaccines is now available through McKesson ConnectSM for McKesson Distribution customers.
As you think about services that will continue to build your pharmacy’s revenues and reputation as a vital clinical resource, consider offering vaccinations, particularly flu shots. Also, begin thinking now of the steps you need to take to prepare for next year’s flu season, including securing an adequate supply of vaccines.
[i] National Early Season Flu Vaccination Coverage, United States, November 2014, www.cdc.gov/flu/fluvaxview/nifs-estimates-nov2014.htm.
[ii] Kim Krisberg, “Pharmacists Taking On a Greater Role in Fight Against Influenza: More People Getting Their Shots in Stores,” American Public Health Association’s The Nation’s Health, February 2012 vol. 42 no. 1, http://thenationshealth.aphapublications.org/content/42/1/1.3.full.
[iii] Peter Frost, “Flu Shots Drive Traffic for Pharmacies,” Chicago Tribune, September 21, 2012, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-09-21/news/ct-met-0921-flu-econ-20120921_1_flu-shots-flu-vaccines-pharmacies-offer, quoting Walgreen’s vice president of retail clinical services.
[iv] Donald G. McNeil Jr., “Flu Season Deaths Reach Epidemic Level But May Be at Peak, C.D.C. Says,” New York Times, January 11, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/12/health/us-flu-deaths-reach-epidemic-levels-but-may-be-peaking.html?_r=2&; Julie Steenhuysen, “Flu Outbreak Still Widespread in U.S., But Starting to Ease, CDC Reports;” Huffington Post, January 18, 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/18/flu-outbreak-us-starting-to-ease_n_2505912.html.