Independence Not Without Challenges
Healthfirst Pharmacy has dealt with many obstacles since it opened in January 2019, from restrictive state regulations to the current COVID-19 crisis. Through it all, co-owners Dallas Schepers and Amit Patel have successfully weathered these growing pains by forging key alliances with physicians and being flexible with pricing and services. We recently spoke with Dallas on overcoming adversity and the importance of an independent pharmacy connecting with its community.
While not everyone these days is rushing to open an independent pharmacy, that’s exactly what the new owners of Healthfirst Pharmacy in Woodridge, IL did.
Dallas Schepers graduated from pharmacy school at the University of Florida in 2012. Later that year, he met Amit Patel after moving to Chicago for his residency at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While the two remained friends after Schepers completed his one-year residency, their paths diverged.
Patel had been with a chain store in Chicagoland since 2008 and continued with the company, earning the title of Pharmacy Manager in 2013. Meanwhile, Schepers continued his schooling. After completing a second one-year residency in Savannah, GA in 2014, he came back to Chicago that same year to accept a position with Mount Sinai Hospital as a Trauma/Surgical/ICU pharmacy specialist.
Comfortable in his career yet feeling somewhat stagnant, Schepers was approached by a “friend of a friend” in 2018 about opening a retail pharmacy inside the Woodridge Clinic in the Chicago suburb of Woodridge.
Schepers immediately thought of his friend, Amit.
“He was much more willing to take the risk than I was,” Schepers said. “He was eager to try something new with a little more growth opportunity than what he had experienced working for a large corporation.”
Schepers felt out of the loop on the retail side of things and knew Patel had a lot of experience as a pharmacy manager.
“That’s why I roped him into it,” Schepers joked. “Amit jumped in feet first.”
"The thing that really interested me in critical care specialization was learning new things..."
The turnaround was fast. Healthfirst Pharmacy opened in January 2019, only six months after Schepers and Patel first discussed the opportunity. Patel has been in the pharmacy nonstop since it opened while Schepers splits time between the pharmacy and Mount Sinai Hospital, with the intent of fully transitioning away from the hospital in the next few months.
The things that once drew Schepers into clinical pharmacy are the same things that motivated him to open an independent pharmacy.
“The thing that really interested me in critical care specialization was learning new things and challenging yourself in terms of learning,” Schepers said. “I felt like owning a business was similar in terms of constantly learning and constantly adapting to new challenges.”
As it turns out, the challenges came as quickly as their new pharmacy opened.
Illinois gives new pharmacy owners only 30 days to open once operating licenses are issued. Additionally, pharmacy owners can’t take insurances until contracts are signed, and most larger insurance companies won’t start the process until the operating license is issued.
“You get a license number, and then basically you’re on the clock and you’ve got to open,” Schepers said. “More than likely you don’t have all your insurances.”
These hurdles along with the lack of regular, set prescriptions led to many anxiety-filled weeks in the first few months.
Fortunately, Healthfirst Pharmacy’s position inside a busy clinic helped offset some of those early struggles. Schepers and Patel established a good relationship with providers inside Woodridge Clinic, resulting in many customer referrals. This was crucial in creating a loyal customer base, along with Healthfirst’s willingness to offer lower costs on medications for patients without insurance.
“People are in the habit of going to the same place,” Schepers said. “It was surprising to see how well received it all was.”
"COVID has been very interesting for us."
The customer base has continued to grow as providers refer more patients and patients refer family members. But now Healthfirst faces two familiar foes - COVID-19 and a struggling economy.
“COVID has been very interesting for us,” Schepers said.
The week before Illinois issued its stay-at-home order in March, business at the pharmacy picked up significantly as people began stocking up. Soon after, patients who stopped coming into the clinic to see their physician started to miss refills. By contrast, Healthfirst’s delivery patients remained consistent because these patients grew accustomed to having their medications delivered.
While the clinic has started to see more foot traffic, Schepers is concerned about the economy in the months ahead.
“Will the economic downturn affect us in a similar way as COVID-19 or will it be worse, because that will impact everybody rather than just COVID-19 making people scared to go in and see the doctor,” Schepers said.
Just as Schepers and Patel successfully navigated those early challenges, they plan to do the same with these latest obstacles. Schepers believes community involvement is critical to the success of an independent pharmacy. In addition to developing a social media strategy, he plans to align with the business community like the Chamber of Commerce and other small business groups.
Schepers has seen this work firsthand. Schepers’ wife owns a dental practice and much of her business is predicated on relationships with other businesses and healthcare professionals.
“You never know when you’re going to get a new patient because you’ve communicated and had good relationships with the community,” Schepers said.
He took those first steps prior to the pandemic by giving several lectures on diabetes education to local Lions Club chapters. His next scheduled talk this summer will be over Zoom rather than in-person.
Despite all the challenges and uncertainty, owning and operating an independent pharmacy has brought Schepers and Patel an unmatched sense of fulfillment.
“We’ve gained traction with our patients because we’re developing relationships with patients as well as with the community around us,” Schepers said. “We’ve really seen that people have stuck with us just because they can call us, we care about them and they feel that.”