NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Although Marcy Robison could have obtained her flu shot at her doctor's office, she found that driving to her neighborhood CVS was faster and more convenient since it offers late evening hours.

The 36 year-old blogger of "Stretching a Buck" in Powell, Ohio said being able to walk in without an appointment was also a plus.

"I was able to stop in and get my flu shot in less than 30 minutes after my husband got home from work one evening," she said.

Drug stores are increasingly offering more options such as vaccinations to travel abroad, free HIV testing, minor illness and injury exams, lab work, physicals wellness screenings, which gives consumers additional options and access to more affordable health care and preventative services without having to spend money for a co-pay or take off of work to see a doctor. This helps level the playing field for many consumers who don't have regular access to health care because of a lack of health insurance or transportation or are limited by the constraints of their job or the hours a primary care physician is available to see patients.

Walgreens, the Springfield, Ill.-based drugstore chain, and Greater Than AIDS, a coalition of about 200 public and private sector partners, teamed up with health departments and local AIDS service organizations and offered free HIV tests June 26 to 28 at over 140 cities in support of National HIV Testing Day. An estimated one in six people do not know that they are infected and only one in four has his virus under control out of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Early diagnosis and treatment is known to reduce the spread of HIV. BioLytical Laboratories donated 10,000 INSTI HIV one-minute, finger-prick test kits to support the effort at select testing sites. Other locations offered rapid results using available oral fluid or blood-based HIV testing technologies.

"These testing events are powerful examples of what can be achieved when the public and private sector come together in response to HIV/AIDS," said Tina Hoff, senior vice president and director of health communication and media partnerships for the Kaiser Family Foundation, a founding partner of Greater Than AIDS. "The very act of offering the tests in Walgreens helps to normalize HIV testing as a part of routine health care."

Throughout the year, Walgreens and Greater Than AIDS distribute HIV informational resources through Walgreens's 700 HIV-specialized pharmacies. These specialized pharmacies have specially trained community pharmacists offering one-on-one, confidential medication counseling to encourage medication adherence and can also assist with other care needs such as identifying co-pay assistance options.

Pharmacists can play a valuable role in addressing various unmet health needs and offer consumers additional access to health care beyond vaccinations, said Stacie Maass, senior vice president, pharmacy practice and government affairs for the American Pharmacists Association in Washington, D.C.

"With their medication expertise, pharmacists offer convenient access to a broad range of services that can improve patient health," she said. "Seeing a pharmacist at the neighborhood pharmacy is convenient, cuts down travel costs and reduces time off from work."

One distinct advantage is that local pharmacies have extended hours and are often open longer than more traditional health care clinic or offices.

"This increases access to care and patients may seek care sooner after the need first arises and avoid long-term costs associated with failing to receive care early on," Maass said.

Pharmacists at CVS Caremark's clinics are ramping up the types of vaccines available in its pharmacies nationwide such as having more access to shingles and meningococcal vaccines, said Papatya Tankut, vice president of pharmacy affairs for CVS Caremark.

In addition to vaccines, the company's MinuteClinic treats people for common family illnesses and injuries, conducts physicals and wellness screenings and monitors chronic conditions.

"Consumers are increasingly looking for convenient ways to keep healthy," she said. "As part of our purpose to help people on their path to better health, we will continue to make it a priority to offer convenient vaccinations and other health care services at our pharmacies and retail clinics."

John Palisano, a professor of biology at the University of Tennessee in Sewanee, Tenn., said he went to his local drugstore for the flu vaccine this year.

"It was a quick and easy," he said. "It cost $31, which is less than a doctor's appointment. The vaccine was administered by the pharmacist and was delivered as competently as any I have received in a doctor's office or hospital."

Another crucial role that pharmacists undertake is helping patients take their prescriptions correctly, said Tankut.

"CVS's pharmacies offer a number of free adherence programs and tools to help patients take their medications as prescribed and this includes automatic prescription refills, prescription text alerts and online prescription management tools accessible on CVS.com and through our mobile apps."

Drugstores such as Walgreens have expanded their role by driving into communities with buses that serve as mobile clinics and offer free health tests such as glucose and cholesterol and consultations, said John Gremer, director of community affairs for Walgreens.

"We want to be a community resource so people have access to healthcare services," he said. "The role of a pharmacist is to have consumers to come in without an appointment and talk to them for free. People want counsel and advice."

Pharmacists can help consumers be aware of various health issues, which are good indicators of potential chronic diseases, Gremer said. In many cities, pharmacists can speak other languages and communicate with consumers better.

"Prevention is something we stress because it is the most cost effective way to deal with illness," he said. "Early detection really helps to lower costs. We want to increase accessibility and have direct impact because a pharmacy is a place to go, take charge and stay well."

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet

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