Michelle Kearns, head of IT at Boots Ireland, discusses the implications of Brexit, Covid-19, and the need for digital literacy.

Having worked in healthcare technology for the better part of 20 years, Michelle Kearns was well prepared when she took the opportunity to join Boots Ireland as its Head of IT in May of 2021 – during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kearns previously worked for software company, Caredoc, for 17 years — four of which as its CIO, founded the One Health Tech Ireland community and also acted as digital health advisor to the World Health Organization.

Here, Kearns talks us through the complexities of managing operations across borders, of building business resilience through crisis, and the responsibility of IT and business leaders to improve digital literacy in the workplace and wider society.

Website infrastructure: solutions without borders

If the pandemic has taught IT leaders one thing, it is that organizations must have the right infrastructure in place so employees can still operate effectively, and customers can continue to be served.

Fortunately, Boots – which is part of the broader Walgreen Boots Alliance (WBA) group – already had a robust infrastructure when it experienced an influx of online traffic during lockdown, with sales on Boots.com doubling in Q4 2020 compared to the previous year.

Kearns explains that in addition to the online store, an online health marketplace had long been in the pipeline for the retailer, and due to consumer demands — and the need to relieve pressure on the UK’s National Health Service, those plans were quickly accelerated.

In July, the online Health Hub, powered by Walgreens Find Care, was launched, connecting customers to the healthcare providers they needed. Once introduced, the platform offered a range of healthcare services, including Covid-19 tests and vaccination appointments, as well as online pay-as-you-go GP consultations.

Needing to cater to customers with different healthcare systems did provide some complications, however, as Kearns explains.

“We had to look at how were we going to deliver it, because Boots UK and Boots Ireland are two separate marketplaces. The way people seek healthcare, the legislation and even how electronic prescriptions are handled is different in both countries. So we needed to be very aware of what we tried in UK and whether it would also work in Ireland,” says Kearns.

A double hit from Brexit and Covid-19

For many UK organizations, creating business resilience in the lead-up to Brexit was the main priority, only for Coronavirus to divert and demand their immediate attention, ultimately disrupting the final leg of the Brexit transition period.

Being a retail pharmacy, Boots faced a ream of additional responsibilities aside from adapting to remote operations. The organization had to consider how to make customers feel safe and comfortable when visiting stores and determine which services could be provided online, thereby reducing unnecessary trips out of the house.

“Throughout the pandemic, our customers were nervous, especially if patients were sick,” admits Kearns. “Nobody really knew what was going on. We were focused on keeping everyone at ease: when people came in to the stores, we wanted to make sure that our colleagues had the most up to date guidance, so everyone felt safe.”

Additional complexity emerged as supply chains struggled to keep pace with rising demand for technical hardware. In-store employees needed iPads to help patients register for vaccinations, consultations, or other health-related products and services, while remote workers needed equipment to work from home.

During this heightened demand for hardware, there is a widening chip shortage in China. These factors, coupled with Brexit, drove additional import costs for hardware delivered to Ireland from the UK. As Kearns explains, a further complexity arrived in that Boots’ UK teams typically configured and stored laptops before sending them over to Ireland, meaning Boots Ireland had to redirect delivery routes directly to Ireland.

A wider conversation is needed around digital literacy

Kearns says the priority is to support patients and customers who don’t have digital devices. “In terms of digital poverty, we’re coming from a very privileged position; we have devices that we can connect to the internet. What about the cohort that don’t? From a Boots perspective, we looked at how can we support patients and customers who don’t have access to digital devices, and what we could provide in-store for them.”

Boots further developed their in-store digital platform to better support customers and patients in receiving the healthcare they needed. This effort especially helped those patients lacking digital literacy. While having this conversation internally at Boots, Kearns highlights the simultaneous conversation happening in wider society in Ireland — with many citizens objecting to new data centers being built in the country, often due to their lack of digital literacy and lack of understanding on the benefits.

For Kearns, this represents an opportunity to drive better communication. The more people understand the cloud is not something magical and invisible, and that data centers are essential for business and life to function, the less conflict there is likely to be.

“There’s so many parallel conversations that need to be happening as a society as a whole,” says Kearns.

“As leaders, we are responsible to make sure that we’re part of that conversation. We can’t simply create a new data center: we have to think about what the impact will be on the landscape around the environment. We have to consider how we can bring this forward in a sustainable way and in a way that people understand why it’s necessary,” Kearns concludes.

To hear from more digital leaders from around the world about what the future holds for businesses, and their role within the organization, listen to episode seven of The Living Enterprise podcast series.