Long gone are the days when pharmacists were sometimes referred to as pill-counters and considered just dispensers of medication. Pharmacists have become recognized as critical front-line workers in the fight against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) while remaining active members of the patient care team.

Their role expanded considerably in 2020 as they administered childhood vaccines, conducted COVID-19 testing, virtually counseled patients and more. This year, pharmacists’ role will continue to evolve because of, or despite, the pandemic. Below are my predictions on what lies ahead for pharmacists in 2021.

1. Pharmacists’ Duties Will Continue to Grow, As Will Their Stress
This year, pharmacists will continue to be essential by addressing the pandemic with their newest COVID-19 related duty—administering and educating their customers about COVID-19 immunizations. But this and other coronavirus responsibilities are exacerbating pharmacist burnout and negatively affecting their mental health and general well-being.

A recent poll found that the percentage of pharmacists who said they were “extremely dissatisfied” with their current position jumped from 9% in 2019 to 17% in 2020. Further, nearly 8 in 10 respondents cited increased work volume as a contributor to higher stress levels, and 37% specifically pointed to increased paperwork.

Fortunately, in 2020, we saw an uptick in the adoption of health information technology tools that can help combat these stressors, such as Direct Secure Messaging, prescription price transparency, and enhancements to electronic prescribing. Looking ahead, we expect pharmacists to put a greater emphasis on these types of tools to help streamline administrative work, so they can focus on fulfilling their COVID-19-related tasks and serving as a trusted provider to their patients.

2. Health Care Consumerism Will Gain Traction at the Pharmacy
COVID-19 and its economic consequences are driving patients’ concerns about health care costs and how they receive care. Patients are increasingly accessing price transparency tools and using consumer services such as prescription delivery, mobile health applications, and telemedicine as they make health care decisions.

As patients become decision-makers for their health care, we expect pharmacists will increasingly adopt price transparency tools to help meet customers’ expectations and bring these discussions to the pharmacy counter.

Additionally, with growing consensus that telehealth is here to stay, more pharmacists will take advantage of virtual counseling and patient-education visits. Data from Amwell’s Physician and Consumer Survey found that 76% of respondents expect to use telehealth post-COVID-19.

Better yet, consumer satisfaction is high with this service. According to a recent Harris Poll, 8 in 10 of those who have used telehealth services say they love/like it. And beyond customers’ interests, officials at the state and federal level have made adoption easier with the expansion of opportunities and reimbursements.

3. Specialty Medications Will Drive Digital Innovation
The number of specialty medications on the market has exploded—increasing by more than 1200% since the mid-90s—and they offer new hope for patients with chronic illnesses or cancer. But with these high-cost, high-complexity drugs come new hurdles. Specifically, specialty medications need “high-touch” services, requiring unique administration procedures, the exchange of detailed clinical information between prescribers and specialty pharmacists, patient education, prior authorization, and more.

Because of this complexity, exchanging information via telephone and fax often leads to treatment delays for patients dealing with challenging, chronic conditions. This, along with the growth, cost and complexity of these drugs, will increase the need for digitization in 2021. Prescribers, pharmacists and patients’ experience with specialty medications will improve thanks to new electronic tools that make previously burdensome and manual administrative work swift or even automated.

4. Regulatory Drivers for Health Care Information Technology Adoption Will Grow
As of January 1, 2021, the federal SUPPORT Act of 2018 requires that Medicare Part D providers use electronic prescribing for controlled substances (EPCS) when caring for Medicare beneficiaries. Plus, e-prescribing and EPCS requirements took effect in 11 more states at the beginning of this year, bringing the total that have such requirements in effect to 24. Although EPCS enablement has been high for pharmacies for some time (over 96%), mandates such as these are vital to accelerating the adoption of EPCS among prescribers nationwide. We expect prescriber enablement (currently at 62% nationally) to continue to grow this year in response to these requirements.

The increased use of EPCS will help pharmacists by eliminating paper prescriptions that can be stolen or forged and give prescribers electronic access to a patient’s prescription history to help identify potential overuse or abuse. There are other benefits as well, including enhanced security and privacy, and improved workflow efficiency for prescribers and pharmacists alike.

COVID-19 cemented our reliance on pharmacists for more direct patient care. No longer an under-recognized resource, it is imperative that partners across health care arm pharmacists with the right tools and technology so they can effectively juggle their new responsibilities without sacrificing patient care. Accelerating health information technology use is one of the multiple ways that pharmacists can improve their workflow and enable themselves to work at the top of their licenses.