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Across all sides of primary health

Mark Longley 07 April 2017, 7:41AM
Across all sides of primary healthGrant Bai Green Cross Health’s CEO

If you stand outside the Unichem Milford pharmacy on Auckland's Kitchener Rd, you could throw a tennis ball and hit another Unichem a hundred yards away. Walk a short distance into the mall and there is a Life Pharmacy. The pharmacies, which fall under the Green Cross Health banner, dominate the market in the north shore suburb.   

With 286 Unichem pharmacies and 64 Life Pharmacies it's fair to say Green Cross Health is the dominant player in pharmacy in New Zealand. It is also one of the major players in the retail world. Not bad for a company that started out from humble beginnings as a buying cooperative.   

In Australia, Green Cross Health would be known as a banner group, and there are a lot more of them over there. During the recent Australian Professional Pharmacy conference, one of the topics talked about at a panel discussion was whether they wield too much power at the expense of the independents. The panel was made up of the heads of the seven largest banner groups, including the newly formed Terry White Chemart. The panel members argued the benefits they bring far outweigh any negatives. Training, support, buying power and the economies of scale larger bodies generally bring were among reasons cited. Also, at the end of the day the consumer benefits, which is kind of the point - better healthcare outcomes for patients.  

The same could be said for Green Cross Health, who were, for example, involved in the recent reclassification of the contraceptive pill. The move to allow pharmacists to administer the pill under certain conditions was both welcomed by, and benefited the wider sector. It is also seen as a step that will benefit the customer.  

The company is more than a buying group these days and has expanded into medical centres and a community health sector. The collaborative approach the company takes to healthcare has put them in a strong position when it comes to bargaining for outcomes. Their Professional Services Group, who played a part in the contraceptive pill reclassification, is a major driver of change in pharmacy.  

The company's website says 1981, when a group of pharmacists set up a buying cooperative under the banner of Unichem, is the date when it all started. Over the following 36 years, it integrated a number of other pharmacy brands, including Life, Amcal, Radius and Care Chemist as well as the community health services and medical centres to become the group it is today.  

GreenCrossHealth_timelineGrant Bai, the CEO of Green Cross Health, still refers to himself as a pharmacist, although his dispensing days are over. His father also a pharmacist. He says behind the growth of the company has been a desire to move from a buying cooperative to a primary healthcare company.  

"We worked on the basis of looking at someone in their home, looking after someone from a medical perspective and also the pharmaceutical side. Those three pillars form the basis.  

"We can offer a triage of primary healthcare. That is attractive to the funder of DHBs. We are starting to shape the way contracts and agreements are put in place because we can deliver a holistic service."  

He says while Unichem was a successful buying group in the early days it struggled to make its way in the primary healthcare business. As it grew, there was a need to begin marketing the brand and so that became a focus. Unichem's success saw other brands such as Amcal and Radius emerge.  

"Green Cross went down the process of getting all the branded groups together because we all had a common aim at the end of the day and that was to get the best price to the consumer. There was also a need to package a support structure around the pharmacies," says Mr Bai.    

"There were at one time five pharmacy brands in the market - Radius, Amcal, Care Chemists, Unichem and Life Pharmacy. We thought if you take it purely from a consumer's perspective there was not much difference between the pharmacies, so we thought let's rationalise that down so we can actually tell the story properly. That is why we came down to the two brands Unichem and Life."  

With just over 1000 pharmacies in New Zealand, Green Cross Health has around one-third of the market. Mr Bai says his initial aim was to get 300 pharmacies in the brand, so he is happy to have exceeded that. However, he says the aim is not to take over every pharmacy in the country.  

"To get to 350 is good and a nice indication, what we are doing adds value to the pharmacies. We offer good support, we assist the industry to get stronger, and raise the profile of the pharmacist and the pharmacy as a place people can get great care and advice," he says.  

"Those are triumphs for the company. Our next phase is getting more brand equity around Green Cross Health itself so the public can recognise the doctors, pharmacists and homecare, and getting a trust link between those.  

"It is not about us taking over all of the pharmacies in New Zealand at all. What we do want to do is make sure consumers have a choice and that we add value to the entire primary healthcare sector. That is a reason why we have grown quite quickly."  

So what about the future? 

Mr Bai often mentions the desire to have the patient only tell the story once and that is a drive behind the three pillars of home-based care, pharmacy and medical centres.  

"We don't have enough market penetration in medical centres and don't have the same footprint as we do in pharmacy. We want a truly collaborative healthcare provider. We have good market penetration with community pharmacy and we want to grow the medical centres to the same level," he says.  

"If you look at government policy, this is very much about keeping people in their homes for longer, so let's keep them there longer but living well, not just living.  

"We want the patient to only have to tell the story once." 


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