Reinventing the Community Pharmacy
On August 1st, 2015, I was so excited to move into my shiny, new office: a storage closet. I looked across to my co-founder, Jamie, and wondered how two engineers from Facebook ended up in the back of a small, family-run pharmacy in the Mission.
Earlier that summer, Jamie and I had left our jobs to start a company that could create lasting change in the world and have massive impact on people’s lives. We were drawn to healthcare and shocked to learn that in the U.S., 50% of people don’t get or take their medications as prescribed. This problem, referred to as medication non-adherence, is one of the country’s leading causes of hospitalization and deaths, and is often due to the high costs and friction in the pharmacy experience. We’d both been at big, retail pharmacies and saw how broken the system was — deeply inefficient and in many ways, inhumane. So, we decided to start by tackling pharmacy.
We ran some Facebook ads, offering a pretty simple service that would pick up your prescriptions and deliver them to your doorstep. That first week, we succeeded in delivering medications to our first happy, paying customers. We thought speed was the key benefit, so we named the company “ScriptDash.” Little did we know, we would need to build so much more (including a new company name, Alto — a nod to a higher, elevated experience).
We heard about a small, beloved community pharmacy, called AG. Located at Army & Guerrero in the Mission district, AG had been owned by pharmacist Vivian Cheung for over 30 years. We befriended Vivian, and she let us follow her around and learn. As weeks went by, we became more curious and amazed by all the backend steps required to make things work — not only behind the counter at the pharmacy, but also between the doctor, the insurance companies and the patient. Vivian was very kind and patiently explained every step to her two newest ‘interns.’
One day, we were watching Vivian prepare a prescription for a patient, Walter, when she noticed that the copay increased from last month’s copay by a few dollars. Vivian knew that for Walter, a few dollars would matter to him. We watched Vivian pick up the phone to call Walter and explain the copay change. Walter was thankful for Vivian’s call and ultimately came in to pick up his meds that evening. It was that day when I realized that what patients need is for their pharmacist to really know them — the way Vivian knew Walter’s health conditions, medication history and his preferences — so that pharmacists can help patients navigate the complexities of healthcare and get the medication they need. I was excited to think about how technology, alongside a caring, patient-focused pharmacy team, could help us bring this type of experience to millions of patients who desperately need an expert pharmacist like Vivian in their corner. It quickly became clear to us that what patients needed was way more than just delivery, that in order to do this right, we needed to be a fully-fledged pharmacy.
Looking back, one of the most important moments in Alto’s history was raising enough capital to purchase AG pharmacy, allowing us to continue partnering with Vivian and her team. We were fully aligned on our mission, and couldn’t have imagined doing this with anyone else.
Being fully immersed in the pharmacy and working alongside pharmacists every day allowed us to more deeply understand the issues with the existing pharmacy experience and why so many patients don’t get or take their medications as needed. We quickly built out our team, bringing together even more expertise across both technology and healthcare, grounded by the core values and caring ways we learned from AG. That first year, we also built the core pieces of our technology stack — our pharmacy operating system, our physician collaboration tool and an app for Alto patients.
Fast-forward to today. We’ve far outgrown that storage closet. We now serve tens of thousands of patients across multiple cities and multiple specialties, all made possible by our incredible team of nearly 300 and the technology platform we’ve built. We’re able to better educate patients about their medication and pricing, deliver medication to their doorstep and provide expert pharmacist advice on an ongoing basis. We are thrilled when customers tell us that they are happy (our NPS satisfaction rate is 80+, compared to pharmacy chains with 5 points) and healthier (we’ve seen our patient’s medication adherence rise to 70% from the industry norm of 50%). That first year with AG really shaped our vision for what a great pharmacy could be and the type of multidisciplinary team we’d need to build it. It’s amazing to think about how far we’ve come, but in many ways, it still feels like the early days. There’s so much more we need to do to bring this type of caring, community pharmacy experience to all the patients who need and deserve it. We are still just getting started!