Walgreens will expand virtual doctor visits to Illinois this summer

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Walgreens President Alex Gourlay (foreground) and Richard Ashworth, president of pharmacy and retail operations, at the Walgreens Boots Alliance global headquarters in Deerfield. | James Foster/for Sun-Times Media

Walgreens shoppers and pharmacy customers in Illinois will be able to talk live to doctors via a smartphone app starting May 31.

Illinois customers will be among the first to get access to Walgreens’ new app feature as the company works to roll out the virtual doctor visits to 25 states by year’s end, the new head of the largest U.S. drugstore chain told the Sun-Times on Monday.

“More important than the quantity of our prescriptions, we want [the pharmacy and pharmacists’ roles] to be more personalized,” said Alex Gourlay, who was named president of Walgreens on Jan. 1 after the Deerfield-based drugstore giant’s $16 billion purchase of European health and beauty retailer Alliance Boots. The company is now called Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.

Walgreens is partnering with MDLive, a Florida-based telehealth provider, to let patients contact and consult on video with a doctor via the mobile app.

Each virtual consultation costs $49, but no information is available about how much profit Walgreens expects to gain from the feature, spokesman Michael Polzin said.

Walgreens’ existing app, which lets people refill prescriptions and chat with pharmacists, has grown into the nation’s third-most popular, behind Amazon (No. 1) and Groupon (No. 2), Gourlay said, citing a June 2014 Internet Retailer study of downloaded mobile apps. Besides Walgreens’ 6 million daily shoppers, the retailer counts another 2 million who access its digital app, he said.

The app is free to download and works with Walgreens’ loyalty card so people earn points when they use it to track their health care goals such as weight, blood pressure and walking distances, Gourlay, 55, said in the interview at Walgreens Boots Alliance headquarters in Deerfield. The doctor-consultation feature has been tested in California and Michigan since December.

In another digital move, Walgreens will be eliminating its film-processing machinery to focus on growing digital photo processing. The company will still be able to deliver next-day photos from film, said Gourlay, who worked his way up at U.K. drugstore chain Boots as a pharmacist and store manager and who has now moved his family to the Chicago suburbs.

Though Walgreens Boots in April surprised longtime observers by announcing it would close 200 stores, Gourlay and Richard Ashworth, president of pharmacy and retail operations, said employment levels should stay constant. The company continues to open between 150 and 200 stores annually.

At the same time, the company intends to cut $1.5 billion in expenses by the end of fiscal 2017 by reorganizing its corporate operations and streamlining its information technology and other functions.

Walgreens employs 20,000 people throughout the greater Chicago area, including stores and offices, with 4,700 at corporate offices in downtown Chicago and in Deerfield, Lincolnshire and Northbrook.

Gourlay also left no wiggle room for debate that Walgreens’ headquarters will stay put in Deerfield as long as the existing board of directors runs the company. The headquarters issue became a political lightning rod when rumors started that Walgreen might move its headquarters overseas to save taxes.

“The whole debate [about the headquarters location] is finished. It will be the U.S. headquarters. . . . More importantly, [Dixon, Illinois] is the birthplace of [founder] Charles Walgreen Sr. The DNA of Walgreens is based on the attitude of that man.”

Gourlay also revealed that shoppers of the Walgreens Loop store at State and Randolph and in the Bucktown neighborhood at Armitage and Milwaukee will be the first locally to be able to buy European brands sold at sister company Boots in the U.K. Among the new products will be Botanics and potentially, Soap & Glory.

It’s part of the company’s efforts to boost its cosmetics offerings in a way that appeals to women in a hurry and looking for a good price.

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