As we look to a new year, it’s interesting to think about the future role of the community pharmacy. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the epicenter of primary care away from traditional settings like the doctor’s office and hospitals to the home, phone, computer and the local community pharmacy. Already among the most trusted healthcare professionals, community pharmacists are poised to take on an even greater role in the healthcare continuum.
Pharmacists today offer so much more than dispensing medication. The pharmacist now plays an integral role in bridging care gaps, providing preventive and acute care services and delivering lifesaving therapeutics.
An expanded role and better patient care
If people don’t seek care virtually, they want to see someone they know and trust where they live and work. Social factors are now a critical piece of understanding the complexity of holistic primary care, and pharmacies are no exception. According to a 2019 article by the UMass Chan Medical School, nearly 9 in 10 Americans live within 5 miles of a community pharmacy, meaning many patients overlook the role of the pharmacist in orchestrating care. Taking this a step further, 77% of community pharmacies serve populations of 50,000 or fewer and may be the only convenient healthcare destination in rural and medically underserved areas.
The pharmacist took a front-row seat to help curb a global pandemic when COVID-19 testing, vaccination and therapeutics launched. Pharmacists are a main source of ACIP-recommended vaccinations and “test-and-treat” programs (for conditions such as flu and strep) for many years. The privileges granted to pharmacists during the pandemic have amplified the public health benefit while highlighting the improved access to care that community pharmacy brings to the table.
Local pharmacies have a unique advantage when engaging with patients and forming meaningful relationships. The expanded clinical role of a pharmacist has far-reaching benefits — such as helping mitigate medication nonadherence, addressing clinical burnout and labor shortages, and improving outcomes, care equity and access.
We can’t talk about improving outcomes and broadening the reach of pharmacists without thinking about connectivity and interoperability. We must expand interoperability standards among pharmacies and EHRs if we want to impact point-of-care decisions and clinical workflows. Pharmacists are now regularly documenting care electronically, using the same coding and formatting standards that are commonly used and recognized by other providers, payers and health information exchanges. The groundwork has been laid for improved connectivity between pharmacists and other providers, but challenges exist that impede information sharing between pharmacy systems and EHRs.
Additionally, we made progress this year as the Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology unveiled 13 new elements for its Exchange Framework and Common Agreement. This framework implements policies, procedures and technical standards to support a pathway toward interoperability. It’s clear that the path forward for health IT and data sharing must include pharmacies both for better automation and information sharing.
Who will pay?
Commercial payers are beginning to recognize pharmacists as providers and putting medical services under the scope of practice, but we need more. Vaccine boosters and COVID-19 tests are driving demand, but if patients’ insurance coverage won’t pay at the pharmacy, it could continue to drive up costs.
Soon, value-based care models will give pharmacies an incentive to take on more risk, and I predict this trend will increase as more value-based care programs take hold and demonstrate success.
In 2022, we must empower our industry to put forth regulations, technology solutions and care delivery that continue to value the pharmacist to achieve a better and more equitable healthcare system for everyone.