Will the Future of Therapy Be at The Drugstore?? Reprinted from the NYTimes 5/10/2021, written by Christina Caron

Well, if you were at my webinar on Strategic Alliances last week, this headline will come as no surprise to you. Worth reading for everyone, and although they are referring to psychotherapy ( for now), its relevance for us cannot be denied.

Therapy on Aisle 7: Retailers Are Entering the Mental Health Market – Call it the ultimate in “retail therapy.” Now you can shop for mental health services at CVS, Rite Aid and other national chains.

Finding a therapist can be a tough and time-consuming process involving multiple phone calls, waiting lists and insurance hurdles. But what if you were able to walk into your corner drugstore for a bottle of shampoo and also had the option of scheduling a walk-in session for mental health treatment?

That’s the future that CVS, the largest retail pharmacy in the United States, is envisioning. Since January the company has added licensed clinical social workers trained in cognitive behavioral therapy to 13 locations in the Houston, Philadelphia and Tampa metro areas. The providers will offer mental health assessments, referrals and counseling either in person or via telehealth, a CVS spokeswoman said, and this spring the company plans to expand to 34 locations in those same regions.  The social workers are available during the day, and also on evenings and weekends in the company’s MinuteClinics, which provide a variety of nonemergency health care services either via walk-in or by appointment. The hours are more flexible than what therapists might normally offer, and the social workers partner with the clinic’s nurse practitioners and pharmacists to give prescriptions when needed, said Dr. Daniel Knecht, the vice president of clinical product at CVS Health.

CVS is just one of a growing number of retailers who are recognizing the unmet need for mental health providers and hoping to fill the gap.

On Thursday, Walmart announced it is acquiring MeMD, which offers online medical and mental health care. Walmart currently provides counseling via Walmart Health, a health center located in a separate building alongside Walmart Supercenters. In Georgia, Walmart Health offers in-person mental health counseling and in Arkansas customers can receive online counseling. Later this year, counseling services will become available at Walmart Health locations in Illinois and Florida, a spokeswoman said.

In addition, Rite Aid is piloting teletherapy in the “virtual care rooms” of 13 stores in Idaho, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia, a spokesman said. The company declined to elaborate on when the program started or whether there are any plans to expand.

And Walgreens is facilitating therapy appointments via the company’s web platform Walgreens Find Care, which connects customers to teletherapy from BetterHelp or Sanvello. Walgreens also offers free access to online mental health screenings through a partnership with Mental Health America, a spokesman said.

“I think it’s a smart model,” Dr. Kali D. Cyrus, a psychiatrist at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, said of the various therapy programs.

“By expanding availability, you increase visibility — and that helps reduce stigma,” Dr. Cyrus said. But she questioned whether the therapy clinics will have a standardized approach when giving out mental health advice, making referrals or offering risk assessments. The licensing and training of providers may differ between states, she added, and different states might have varying protocols for managing psychiatric emergencies; or limited availability of outpatient providers or inpatient hospital beds.

A recent government accountability report found “longstanding concerns about the availability of behavioral health treatment, particularly for low-income individuals,” in part because of the shortage of qualified behavioral health professionals. In the past year, the number of people reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression nearly quadrupled compared to the year prior, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in 2020, there was a 27 percent increase in calls to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline compared to the number of calls in 2019.

Some grocery chains with pharmacies located inside their stores are also addressing disparities in access to mental health services. Albertsons, whose banners include Vons, Safeway, Shaw’s and Pavilions, does not offer therapy, but their pharmacists in 23 states administer injectable antipsychotic drugs as well as injectable medications to help treat substance abuse, a program that has been underway for nearly a decade. Omer Gajial, the senior vice president of pharmacy and health at Albertsons, said the pharmacies offer convenient hours. Most Albertsons pharmacies are open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., he said, and some are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If a patient is uninsured or underinsured, he added, the pharmacy will help connect them with manufacturer rebate programs or a nonprofit foundation that can help fund the treatment.

Subscribe to our mailing list