Walgreens' New Prescription Text Service Is Fast And Pointless

Last Thursday (Oct. 6), Walgreens rolled out its latest mobile feature, which enables its customers to get text reminders of prescriptions that are due for refill, orders that the chain said can be completed "with a simple 'refill' reply." But as another reminder of the challenge of federal pharmacy privacy rules, the text is so restricted as to be borderline useless to the chain's best customers.

The new service, called Refill Reminder Text Alerts, is based on a top-notch idea. The goal is to aid customers who have multiple refills and have had the onus of initiating contact with their pharmacy every time a prescription needs to be refilled, even if they have been consistently refilling the same prescriptions every month for years. Instead of waiting for the customer to call, the chain is initiating that contact and asking with a simple text for permission to refill the order. The problem involves restrictions from the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It prevents the texts from identifying which prescription it's asking about.

For a customer with just one periodic prescription, the onus of handling the refill question is relatively trivial. The true benefit of the program is for the chain's top customers, who have multiple prescriptions that expire on different days. But for them, a text that says, in effect, "some unidentified prescription of yours is due for refill. Should I refill it?" is pointless.

Even worse, according to Walgreens customer service, if a customer indeed has multiple prescriptions with the chain, no text is sent until all of the prescriptions are ready for refill. In other words, it will allow the patient to go without a drug that has run out for weeks, while waiting for an unrelated prescription to also run out?

The text system mimics an existing refill service that Walgreens has with E-mails. But that service links to the chain's secure Web site, which displays lists of prescriptions and allows for online management. The beauty of the text system is that it's an instant reply, which means there's no opportunity to review prescription lists. In this case, what works well in E-mail and and the Web may not work well at all as a mobile text.

Given that the texts do not reveal any confidential information, privacy issues are theoretically not in play. That's good, because the privacy policy on Walgreens' site—as of Thursday (Oct. 12) morning—has an effective date of July 17, 2007. Presumably, a lot of privacy-related stuff has happened in the last four years and four months, but I digress.

The text system opens with a text confirmation message and the customer has 48 hours to respond to that confirmation note or else the account is canceled. After the confirmation, the customer is asked to phone in to customer service, where a range of confidential questions is asked to verify identity. That part seems well thought-out and sounds reasonably secure. But the service itself is curious. Walgreens could have legitimately declined to launch a text service, blaming HIPAA privacy rules.

The HIPAA rules do make sense, because encrypting text messages would be impossible, so securing the data would not be easy. But why proceed with the service? Both Walgreens and fellow pharmacy chain Rite-Aid have successfully tangled with the security issues—in different ways—when dealing with Web site chat services. Walgreens could have positioned this as a service solely for customers with only one active prescription, just as grocery chains could solely push self-checkout lanes to customers with fewer than 10 items in their carts. But the grocery chains don't do that, so it shouldn't be a surprise that pharmacies don't either.

It's hard to justify deliberately limiting a service's rollout to a small segment of a chain's customers. But if it will only work well for that subset, it's the only wise long-term approach. In the meantime, I'll await a text from Walgreens reminding me of the refill that I'll have to have already remembered. Life can be weird, but at least with texting, the weirdness comes and goes quickly. TTYL.