Overcoming obstacles: Helping pharmacists’ roles evolve in response to COVID-19’s challenges

Surescripts’ Ken Whittemore Jr. shares insights from pharmacists and patients on how to improve their experiences through the pandemic and beyond.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, pharmacists continue to serve a critical role in the fight against COVID-19. How pharmacists and the rest of the healthcare community have come together and risen to this challenge has been nothing short of impressive. But how has COVID-19 specifically impacted pharmacists and patients, and what can we do differently to improve their experiences? Those are questions that we recently asked 520 pharmacists, 200 prescribers and 300 patients. Here are a few things that we learned: 

1. COVID-19 is exacerbating pharmacist burnout.
Pharmacists now have the added responsibilities of coronavirus testing, vaccinations and reporting inoculations to primary care providers. But in tandem with this increased workload, 90% of community pharmacies report having trouble staffing open positions to meet these growing needs.

For these reasons and more, only 1 in 5 pharmacists felt very prepared to handle their new role during the pandemic. Pharmacists said they fielded more patient questions during the past 18 months, but only a fifth of pharmacists (21%) felt they always had the correct patient information to provide proper medication and therapy guidance.

[Read more: Keycentrix enhances Newleaf pharmacy software]

Burnout in health care has been a growing issue for the industry for years, but these new COVID-19-related responsibilities and staffing issues threaten to intensify this issue. As an industry, we can help pharmacists through the pandemic and beyond with up-to-date, interoperable technologies that allow them to do more for patients with less burnout and frustration.

"As an industry, we can help pharmacists through the pandemic and beyond with up-to-date, interoperable technologies that allow them to do more for patients with less burnout and frustration."

2. Too few pharmacists have access to advanced technology.
While nearly half of pharmacists (48%) reported increased use of technology, there is still room for technology to improve workflows and reduce the impact of frustrating processes, including prior authorization and finding accurate medication pricing.

Pharmacists reported having questions for the prescriber for nearly a quarter (22%) of the prescriptions they dispense, yet half of the communication still happens by telephone or fax. Pharmacists communicate with prescribers via their pharmacy software about 33% of the time, so there clearly is room for improvement on this count. 

Time spent on these administrative tasks using antiquated technologies exacerbates existing workflow bottlenecks and staffing challenges.

[Read more: Empowering pharmacists: Technology and automation companies offer operational solutions for pharmacies]

We need to ensure pharmacists are aware of the tools that can help them facilitate greater interoperability and access to prescription price information and streamline growing workloads, allowing them more time to care for patients.

3. Patients want to talk about prescription costs, but pharmacists aren’t always enabled to do so effectively.
Nineteen percent of patients in our survey said it has become harder to afford medication in the past 18 months. It’s no surprise, then, that the average pharmacist sees as many as 10% of patients walk away without their medications due to cost.

Unfortunately, pharmacists often have limited ability to resolve such cost concerns. Most of the pharmacists surveyed (58%) find it somewhat or very difficult to access a patient’s out-of-pocket costs.

Pharmacists listed prescription costs as the most significant issue in health care today because when patients experience sticker shock, the likelihood of prescription abandonment increases, and patients can lose trust and satisfaction in their providers. 

[Read more: Standout specialty services]

A future in which ready access to prescription price information is the norm should be realized today. Pharmacists can now leverage newly available prescription price reporting tools to meet patients’ expectations around medication costs while ensuring their patients get high-quality and affordable care.

We need to do everything we can to help prepare pharmacists for whatever tomorrow may bring and to help them spend less time on administrative tasks and focus on what matters — patients.

Ken Whittemore Jr., Surescripts

Ken Whittemore Jr. is vice president of professional and regulatory affairs at Surescripts.

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