Pharmacy U

Ralph Lai – Connecting with the community


For almost three decades, Ralph Lai has been helping pharmacists at the Overwaitea Food Group meet – and exceed – patient expectations. In his current position, he is responsible for the British Columbia and Alberta  supermarket chain’s pharmacy, health and beauty aids, bookstore, personal care, cosmetic, and OTC departments. “We have 145 stores and 120 with pharmacies. They keep me busy, and they keep me looking for ways to be innovative,” says Lai.


Education: University of British Columbia (Pharmacy & Commerce)

Current role: General Manager, Drugstore, Overwaitea Food Group, Langley, British Columbia

How important is the role pharmacies play in Overwaitea Food Group’s large-store format? How do you become part of the fabric of the business?

The pharmacy is an integral part of our business. We value our pharmacy clients and want to give them the full experience. We recognize the pharmacy is a business in and of itself, but it also complements the grocery store. In fact we were the first supermarket chain in Canada to integrate pharmacies into the traditional grocery store; integration has been part of our business model since 1985. All Overwaitea Food Group team members, no matter their role, have one objective – to look after their customers and provide them with the best possible experience.

How do your pharmacies reach out and support busy patients in an environment with lots of hustle and bustle?

We are innovative, and we are customer-centred. For example, we offer wellness tours, nutrition tours, teach customers how to shop for specific disease states, how to properly read and understand labels and we offer various clinics – which we’ve been doing since the ‘80s . For a time-saving convenience we offer drive-through pharmacies, which are very popular. We continue to offer value-added services for our pharmacy clients: we stay on top of trends, provide ongoing team member training, and ensure that patient-centred care is our top priority.

How do you maintain sight of patient needs and pharmacist realities?

The patient is our primary focus. We live and breathe this philosophy. We connect with the community and develop relationships with our pharmacy clients. Our pharmacists understand the importance of having a local focus and a community presence. We’re in a commodity business , our service is what sets us apart. We share knowledge; there is a greater need for health information today, and we are proud to provide it to our customers.

What do you do to promote advocacy? Are there specific areas of interest?

As pharmacy professionals, I believe it is our responsibility to advocate for the important role pharmacists play in advancing the health of our citizens. As trusted healthcare advisors, we play a key role in the overall healthcare system. In a time when our industry is under pressure to control costs, it is more important than ever that all stakeholders understand the value of that.

Is there an issue where you’d like to see greater awareness and progress?  

We need to expand scope of practice even further. With an aging demographic and the increasing cost of healthcare, change is essential. The government is trying to ensure the healthcare system is sustainable and that it doesn’t collapse. As a profession, we want to do more – and we can. For example, through pharmacy we have the ability to reach more Canadians with healthcare interventions and prevention, such as flu shots, that have been offered traditionally through the conventional healthcare system.

We believe that as a logical next step, things like the assessment of minor ailments could be universal, which would translate into an important cost savings by increasing our scope of practice. It’s an exciting time to be a pharmacist. It’s also a very uncertain time. Proper advocacy will give the profession and the healthcare system greater certainty.