Rite Aid's White-Coat Problem: That's Not a Pharmacist

Rite Aid
Rite Aid

Headed to Rite Aid (RAD) to get something for your pounding headache or flu symptoms? When you sidle up to the counter to discuss your symptoms with the helpful Rite Aid employee clad in a white coat, do you know if you're speaking to a pharmacist or just one of Rite Aid's "wellness ambassadors"?

Two U.S. senators say that the distinction isn't clear enough.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) sent a letter Thursday to Rite Aid CEO John Standley, expressing concern about potentially deceptive marketing in the use of the wellness ambassadors.

At issue is a new store format Rite Aid adopted last spring that includes "wellness ambassadors" and "wellness stations" as part of its customer service strategy. Currently, Rite Aid operates its wellness program at 300 of its 4,700 stores.

Rite Aid
Rite Aid

Bitter Pill

The congressmen expressed concern that consumers would seek medical advice from wellness ambassadors, who wear white coats similar to those of the pharmacists and whose wellness stations are located within close proximity to the pharmacy desk. In particular, they raise concerns about recommendations being made by wellness ambassadors for non-FDA-approved dietary supplements.

In their letter, the senators state:

We are concerned that Rite Aid customers seeking a prescription or an over-the-counter drug are misled into believing the wellness ambassador is a pharmacist or health professional qualified to dispense medical advice. This potential for confusion could result in dramatic and dangerous consequences for consumers.
Furthermore, we are deeply concerned that wellness ambassadors could be making false and misleading claims by marketing dietary supplements as treatments for health conditions. The Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits marketing products through "unfair or deceptive acts or practices," such as making explicit or implied medical claims that a dietary supplement can treat, prevent, or cure a specific disease or condition. Because wellness ambassadors field questions from Rite Aid customers about treatments for symptoms and health conditions, we are troubled that customers could be directed to purchase dietary supplements, which have not been reviewed by the FDA or approved to be marketed like drugs.

There are serious questions about whether dietary supplements actually improve the health of the individuals who take them -- and, in some cases, reports have linked them to harmful outcomes.

Say Aaah...

In their letter, the senators ask Rite Aid to ease their concerns by answering a half dozen or so questions on topics that range from the training ambassadors receive in handling customers' questions seeking medical advice to whether these ambassadors mostly direct consumers to dietary supplements as health aids.

Rite Aid, however, contends that its patient safety is always a priority and that the role of its wellness ambassadors is to serve as liaisons to pharmacists, locate products and serve as store greeters.

"Our ambassadors do not give counseling or advice," says Ashley Flower, a Rite Aid spokeswoman. "If patients have questions, like how a product may interact with another, they are referred to a pharmacist."

She added that the wellness ambassadors are often walking throughout the store, rather than standing near the wellness stations, which are used to hold brochures and other resources. The wellness station, Flower notes, is often located in the center of the store, but depending on space, could be set up near the pharmacy.

Rite Aid's Reputation

With stores like Walmart (WMT) encroaching on its prescription business, Rite Aid is right to try to step up its game in differentiating itself from competitors. Unfortunately, this attempt is getting the wrong kind of attention. (Several websites are already posting various Rite Aid complaints.)

When consumer health is on the line, you can't afford to make any customer relations missteps. Maybe Rite Aid should take a cue from Walmart: The stores have greeters, but they're not wearing white coats.

Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto does not own any stock in the companies listed. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walmart. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of and creating a diagonal call position in Walmart.

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