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Boots: We want to be first port of call for non-urgent primary care

Patients can access 99 “pay as you go” services from medical professionals remotely. (Credit: Boots)

Boots director of healthcare services tells C+D how the multiple aims to be the UK’s “first port of call for non-urgent primary care” as it launches a private digital health suite.

Last week, Boots formally launched its online Health Hub – a healthcare platform where patients can access 99 “pay as you go” services from medical professionals remotely, and an online doctor service for quick access to advice and prescription-only medicines via video consultations.

In an exclusive interview with C+D, Boots director of healthcare services Asif Aziz explained how the multiple plans to grow its digital services offering.

“We'd like to believe that when customers are unwell or […] they want information or advice, they think about the Boots Health Hub, and they come to the Boots Health Hub first,” Mr Aziz said.

“Covering all bases” in primary care

The Health Hub allows patients to select a non-urgent condition they need help with, which then takes them through a series of questions. They find the outcome of their consultation within 24 hours and, if medication is prescribed, they can collect it from a local Boots or have it delivered.

As well as promoting the pharmacy services available in Boots branches, the Health Hub provides access to an online doctor service – also launched by Boots last week, nearly doubling the services it offers – which provides consultations for 45 services including sexual health, skin conditions and hair loss. Mr Aziz also pointed to diagnostic services such as one for blood glucose levels.

“We see all of our healthcare services to be on the Health Hub,” Mr Aziz told C+D. “That’s the central point: we want all of our healthcare providers, pharmacy services, information and advice [on there] as well. But that will continue to evolve and grow in many different ways.”

The service is pay-as-you-go for patients: £15 for the likes of psoriasis or eczema treatments, or £50 for a chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis test kit.

Perhaps uniquely, each consultation on the Health Hub also comes with a video showing the patient how to use the service or properly take any medication they have been prescribed, Mr Aziz explained.

Asked if this was something that would have otherwise traditionally been done by Boots pharmacists in-branch, Mr Aziz replied: “Our pharmacy teams absolutely could consult [patients].

“But from a convenience point of view, for a patient or customer to have these medicines sent to their home, or to their place of work, we're covering all bases by ensuring that that video consultation enables them to still get the information that they require.”

The (online) doctor will see you now

Boots pharmacists are still heavily involved in the Health Hub, Mr Aziz noted. Not only are pharmacy services available through the hub, but the online doctor service is operated by pharmacists alongside nurses and doctors.

The multiple points to a recent report by the Royal College of General Practitioners, which found that 54% of GP appointments in March this year were conducted over the phone.

“We know virtual GP [appointments] are increasing, people are utilising them more and convenience is so important,” Mr Aziz said.

However, he stresses that the online doctor service is not seeking to take business away from GPs or the NHS.

“We do many NHS services. We do local as well as national ones, as well as many private services and things like vaccinations,” he said. “What this does is further complements all of those services to establish this as more of a comprehensive primary care healthcare service providing the community and it gives customers and patients convenience.”

Mr Aziz’s sentiments are reflected by Marc Donovan, Boots UK’s chief pharmacist, who said: “We hope that by providing access to both NHS services and private healthcare on the high street or online, we can help to relieve pressure on our NHS.”

Online competition in a pandemic-fuelled market

With 29 million users every month, Mr Aziz told C+D: “We genuinely do believe this is a growing market, and we want to play a bigger role.”

Asked how Boots sees the Health Hub competiting with other online healthcare providers, Mr Aziz said he believed there is not a direct comparison, but is “more akin to some of the condition-led care services the pharmacy chains have”.

Specifically, the inclusion of video consultations into the platform “really gives us a differential in this space”.

Mr Donovan added: “People are increasingly looking online to access healthcare at a time and place that suits them – a trend that has accelerated during the pandemic.”

But this raises the question: why launch a virtual healthcare platform 16 months into a pandemic? The government has set a date for the end of lockdown restrictions, which the new health secretary seems keen to stick to, and GPs are now facing a massive in-person backlog as patients return to surgeries.

Mr Aziz responded: “We've always been wanting to deliver [these kind of] healthcare services. We've learned a lot throughout the pandemic, we've worked very closely with the NHS all throughout the pandemic, and we know that the nation's healthcare needs are primary, but it is even more of a focus to customers and patients now than ever before.

“We also know the challenges the NHS is under – that GPs are under – today. And we feel it's [the right] time to introduce the services to consumers, patients and customers of the UK. What we're trying to do here can only help patients and customers as well as the NHS.” 

In 2019, Boots unveiled a series of digital and in-branch transformation plans, including a free online prescription service via the Boots app and website, “express” collection lanes in 600 branches and trialling secure prescription lockers.

What do you think of the Boots Health Hub?

David Kent, Community pharmacist

What arrogance from this company.  The Boots Digital Health Suite is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with a pharmacist and in this Boots pharmacists are no more and no less qualified than any other.

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