With COVID in the rearview mirror, what’s next for vaccines?

Retail pharmacies could reclaim success by proactively addressing three of today’s most significant challenges.
Kathie Canning

The COVID-19 pandemic was a game-changer for many U.S. retail pharmacies. In early 2021, the first phase of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program launched, and a number of pharmacies nationwide began to offer COVID-19 vaccinations for their communities.

The public turnout was nothing short of impressive. By mid-July 2021, Federal Retail Pharmacy Program participants in the United States had administered and reported approximately 112 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And many COVID-19 vaccine recipients began to view retail pharmacies as much more than just prescription fillers.

In fact, research from consulting firm Accenture, shows that 67% of consumers used expanded services from their retail pharmacy throughout the pandemic, said Tyler Slovick, managing director of the company’s healthcare group.

oneevent pharmacy systems

“Retail pharmacies experienced a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to elevate their status as essential businesses, sustaining foot traffic and bringing new patients seeking health services to the store,” he noted. “They accelerated their shift toward becoming health care service providers, adding new nonprescription revenues in diagnostics and vaccination programs.”

But the party appears to be over. Many retail pharmacies are facing significant challenges tied to their vaccination programs—for COVID-19, shingles, influenza and more. But they could reclaim success by proactively addressing three of today’s greatest challenges.

Waning Demand

One major difficulty impacting retail vaccine programs is the greatly reduced demand for COVID-19 boosters, noted Wayne Glowac, director of marketing for OneEvent Technologies, Mount Horeb, Wis.

“For a while, pharmacies were the ‘field of dreams.’ If you built it, they would come,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are people not coming back.” Jason Ausili, Pharm D., head of pharmacy transformation for Fort Worth, Texas-based EnlivenHealth, said identification of vaccine candidates is particularly critical for retail pharmacy locations that depend primarily on an “on-demand walk-in-visit model.” He noted that modern clinical software solutions could not only help retail pharmacies identify these candidates but also “help close gaps” for patients who haven’t completed a multi-dose series of shots.

Another plus? The right technology solution could minimize the burdens associated with vaccination protocol compliance. Ausili noted that EnlivenHealth recently debuted the Amplicare Clinical Solution, which provides an “easy end-to-end clinical workflow” for retail pharmacies.

phcbi vaccine

“Patients enjoy the digital convenience of SMS text communications, online appointment scheduling and electronic consent forms,” Ausili explained. “Pharmacists benefit from a streamlined work queue, digital clinical documentation, medical billing and vaccine registry reporting. Linking pre-, during- and post-clinical service activities together in one continuous digital experience provides pharmacies with a solution that promotes healthier outcomes while also increasing operational efficiency and revenue.”

Marketing is key to building demand, too, and should go well beyond a Facebook post, Glowac stressed. Retail pharmacies could win by employing the traditional four Ps of marketing—product, price, place and promotion—as well as by putting in some extra effort. He pointed to one retail pharmacy that has become a sort of “destination for family vaccinations” by reaching out to patients with vaccine reminders. In fact, it sent an email to remind Glowac’s wife that she was eligible for her COVID-19 booster but also for her shingles vaccination and flu shot. The reminder prompted her to make a return visit.

“I know that’s a lot of effort, a lot of paperwork, but pharmacies that succeeding in and are really dedicated to doing the work that needs to get done,” Glowac said.

Recognizing that a number of physicians “aren’t that crazy about” providing vaccinations, some other retail pharmacies are now actively marketing their vaccination capabilities to local physicians’ offices, he added.

“I know it’s hard for pharmacists to get out from behind the bench and go out in person, but I’ve seen those who visit doctors’ offices and build relationships be successful and continue to do vaccinations,” Glowac said.

Staffing Shortages

Another significant threat to retail vaccine programs is insufficient staffing. As Josh Griggs, director of retail pharmacy sales for Boston-based SmartSense by Digi, explained, many retail pharmacies are having difficulty fully staffing operations with pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and other critical personnel.

“I know it’s hard for pharmacists to get out from behind the bench and go out in person, but I’ve seen those who visit doctors’ offices and build relationships be successful and continue to do vaccinations.”
— Wayne Glowac, director of marketing, OneEvent Technologies

Understaffing can be attributed to several factors, including labor shortages, the establishment of new payment streams as federal COVID-19 funds expire and pharmacist burnout. Although pharmacists want to expand the role they play in health care delivery — and possess the expertise and access to do so—they are emotionally exhausted, thanks to pressure to move quickly and carry heavy workloads without enough staff, Slovick said.

“In fact, Accenture’s research found more than one in three pharmacists are likely to leave their position in the next two years,” he pointed out. “Without pharmacists, stores are then required to offer limited hours, or worse—shut their doors.”

Pharmacists who remain on the job but who lack adequate support staffing face potential risks tied to vaccine-administration disruptions and degradation of vaccine-holding conditions, Griggs said. But retail pharmacies could take steps to minimize issues tied to staffing shortages. For example, he noted, they could implement continuous environmental monitoring technology that maximizes critical inventory consumption via enhanced asset protection and prescriptive guidance. Such technology is powered by real-time data and excursion detection.

Reallocation, automation, AI and/or robotic support also could help retail pharmacies eliminate low-value workflows that can eat into pharmacists’ valuable time, Slovick explained.

“Accenture research shows 76% of pharmacists feel they don’t have time to connect with patients in more meaningful ways,” he noted.

And Glowac pointed to a novel idea implemented by the aforementioned “destination for family vaccinations”—that retail pharmacy recruits pharmacy students from the local university to take care of a lot of the vaccine-related administrative work.

“It’s a win-win,” he noted. “They can then leverage those pharmacy students into employees.”

flu vaccination workflow

Temperature Worries

Temperature control/monitoring for vaccine storage presents yet another challenge in retail pharmacy vaccination programs— particularly frustrating considering today’s staffing issues.

“Some newer vaccines may require a broader range of temperature conditions for long-term storage,” noted Joe Laporte, chief innovation officer of Wood Dale, Ill.- headquartered PHC Corporation of North America. “It is important that pharmacy managers understand the impact of frozen vaccine storage on equipment needs and the timing associated with the thawed vaccines once removed from a frozen state.”

Laporte said retail pharmacies must practice careful inventory management here, employing a first-in/last-out policy with vaccine deliveries, understanding shelf lives and expiration dates, adhering to independent temperature-monitoring procedures and more. The right refrigeration equipment is critical, too. Refrigerators and freezers must be designed for uniform storage,

internal temperature uniformity and rapid temperature recovery following frequent door opening. “PHC Corporation of North America offers Energy Star certified slim, under-counter and combination units that deliver the required safe conditions for storage while helping to conserve energy costs in the pharmacy,” Laporte said.

Reliable temperature monitoring is critical, too, of course. To meet needs here, SmartSense by Digi offers a highly scalable remote temperature and compliance monitoring system for vaccine operations. According to the company, it maintains CDC-required continuous temperature monitoring of vaccines in refrigerators, freezers and ultra-low temperature freezers.

For its part, OneEvent Technologies offers a cellular-based refrigeration-monitoring system for vaccines and medications, Glowac noted. “Our system helps save time; it saves money; it helps keep your patients safe; and it protects your reputation,” he said. “It’s a small price, really, to protect inventory.”

Griggs shared that various boards of pharmacy now require specific alerts— within specified timeframes—for refrigerated assets such as vaccines. These additional requirements call for monitoring and alerting in relation to ambient temperatures and relative humidity in the retail pharmacy itself, not just in the refrigerator or freezer.

“Furthermore, with more and more mobile vaccine clinics being supported and rolled out at local businesses or universities, the entire cold chain custody has become more important than ever,” he emphasized.

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