The top team behind Boots’ big move into digital healthcare services explain why it will deliver benefits for their customers and the NHS. By Thelma Agnew.

Boots is one of those rare High Street giants that everyone knows and trusts. Generations of Britons have gone to their local Boots store for medicines, beauty products and household essentials. No company could survive for 170 years, as Boots has, without moving with the times. But the company’s ambition to become a major provider of digital healthcare – underlined by its high-profile presence at this year’s Rewired festival – is bold.

For Boots’ director of healthcare, Jamie Kerruish, the embrace of digital is the result of the company’s closeness to its customers rather than a break from its heritage. “There is no choice is there? That’s where our customers already are. What we are doing is reflecting our total healthcare strategy, and making it as omnichannel as we can make it. People love both the convenience of digital and the humanity of a store environment.’

The pharmacy teams who work in Boots’ stores are “genuinely cherished by their communities”, says Kerruish. “We want to create the same love and cherishing of our digital advice, so we can be right where people need us when they need us.”

The company’s key mission is two-fold, he explains. “One is improving customer and patient outcomes, and the other is lowering the cost of care – for the person and for the whole healthcare system, which is absolutely in need of that transformation.”

Partner of the NHS

Kerruish hopes to use Boots’ “incredible digital and physical reach” to position itself as a partner of the NHS, alleviating some of the pressures on primary care and working with the health service “hand in glove” to improve people’s health. “GPs have been doing an unbelievable job but are now at capacity and need some help,” he says.

Boots was already developing its digital capacity before Covid: in 2019 it acquired Wiggly-Amps (rebranded as Engage Health Systems) to access software that would link its customers directly to their GP records for ordering prescriptions online. The pandemic accelerated the process and sparked a new willingness among its customers to engage with healthcare digitally.

A survey conducted for its Digital Healthcare Trends report in 2021 found that 69% of respondents had increased their digital healthcare use since the pandemic, and 88% planned to continue using digital routes. Boots responded to the behavioural shift by launching its Health Hub, a digital home for health and pharmacy services, including an Online Doctor. “We now have 125 [digital] healthcare services, double the number we had pre-Covid.

Seamless journeys

“Part of our strategy is called Outstanding Convenience – essentially creating brilliant, seamless journeys on things like repeat prescriptions, using those digital channels much more so they benefit the in-store journey, rather than create two parallel journeys,” says Kerruish.

In December, the company upgraded its Health Hub, as Paula Bobbett, chief digital officer, explains: “Not only can you navigate to content and advice but you can then get the product you need. We are also bringing through enhancements to, so you can check if your prescription is available in your local store before you go in. You can also have a healthcare product delivered to you at home, sometimes in 30 minutes. That’s building huge momentum.”

‘Next level’ personalisation

Rich Corbridge, chief information officer, says the enhancements reflect Boots’ “personalisation agenda” – it’s about taking it to the next level.

“How do we take data and [use it to] personalise the journey, so that when the patient turns up in store we know – because they have said we are allowed to know – who they are, and what they need, so they get that personal touch.”

Using technology and data to personalise the customer or patient’ journey also means the in-store pharmacist “knows exactly who they are and can give them the right healthcare advice.”

Boots’ long history and the relationship people have with its pharmacists “generates a huge amount of trust” for its digital offer, says Bobbett. Kerruish agrees, but emphasises that the move into digital is being made with enormous care. “We have been around a long time and that gives you great trust credentials but you’ve got to do something with them. We are the custodians of our brand, it will exist longer than we do, so we are very careful to make sure to do the right things for our customers and patients.”

Making connections at Rewired

The participation in this year’s Rewired – Boots UK MD Sebastian James is a keynote speaker on the Digital Transformation Stage, the company has a stand and is sponsoring the Digital Nursing Stage – builds on groundwork that has already been laid. “For the last two or three years where we have been involved as judges for Pitchfest, we have made some amazing connections,” says Corbridge. “One of the reasons we wanted to be there this year was to meet people and say, ‘how can we help you?’. That’s fundamental to us being there for the two days at Rewired.”

“We passionately believe that real, big progress will only happen in partnership,” adds Kerruish. “And those partnerships will be with exactly the kind of people who will be coming to Rewired.”

Corbridge says Boots has taken “an enormous leap forward” into digital in the last six months. “We have connected digital and the customer experience instore and online through Paula, the strategy and the innovation through Jamie, and delivered the foundations, which is my job. Those different parts have come together.”

He highlights that Boots has been taking inspiration from the NHS, for example, the digital training it now provides to its pharmacists; but the company is equally keen to give back to the health service and share insights from its approach to digital expansion.

The coherence of that approach is a product of the closely-knit roles of Kerruish, Bobbett and Corbridge. “The three of us co-own this, because how could we not?” says Kerruish. “That’s what you will see at Rewired – that cohesion and call to action.”