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Walgreens will let you see doctors on your phone

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The country's largest drug store chain wants to bring doctors onto your iPhone to deliver real, live video chat appointments.

Walgreens has inked a deal with a company called MDLive to give pharmacy customers access to doctors over a secure video line. The idea, which the chain will pilot in California and Michigan, aims to have doctors available around-the-clock, offering virtual appointments at hours when offices tend to be closed – a doctor, for example, you can call when you wake up with a weird pain at 2 a.m.

"For the first time, a drugstore’s website and mobile app users can share the convenience of accessing a board-certified doctor who can also e-prescribe medication when appropriate, via a secure, online video platform," MDLive chief executive Randy Parker said in a statement announcing the deal.

The Walgreens deal looks like a more aggressive form of something that's happened a lot with drug stores lately: an attempt to turn themselves into health care providers. Retail clinics keep opening at a fast clip and, earlier this year. CVS decided to forgo more than $2 billion in tobacco sales and ban the products from its shelves. Tobacco, the company announced, didn't fit with it's brand as a health care provider.

Walgreens has also done some other, interesting experimental stuff in this space. It was the first pharmacy chain to sign up for a part of Obamacare that rewards health providers for helping patients get healthier — and, conversely, takes money away if patients' health deteriorates. This is the health law's Accountable Care Organization program and it typically has drawn large hospital systems and doctor groups as participants.

But in 2013, Walgreens decided to get onboard, too, and collaborate with a network of hospitals and doctors to become an ACO. The pharmacy chain's leadership figured that pharmacies are actually a great place to anchor a plan to improve patients health, largely because they're the place where patients seek the most care. Most of us fill prescriptions way more frequently than we visit the doctor.

"I see this as a natural evolution," Walgreen's Senior Vice President Jeffrey Kang, who leads the pharmacy chain's work on health and wellness, said at the time. "Over the last five years we have been moving more aggressively into health services. Historically our pharmacists were just filling prescriptions. We've moved them out behind the counter in a more consultative role."

So, now Walgreen's wants to test out another new service, one that will bring doctors on demand — not just in a retail clinic, but in patients' home. It's an experiment worth keeping an eye on, as pharmacies keep racing to develop a new model of how we see the doctor.

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