Community Pharmacies Positioned to be the Epicenter of Care

Community pharmacists have an essential role to play during this phase of the crisis that could further entrench them as the epicenter of care in the communities they serve.

As declining COVID-19 case numbers and the rollout of new vaccines bring the end of the pandemic into clearer view, community pharmacists have an essential role to play during this phase of the crisis that could further entrench them as the epicenter of care in the communities they serve.

Pharmacists are well aware that they do far more for their communities than merely dispense prescriptions, but many patients still cling to that outdated conception of their local pharmacies. Now, as COVID-19 numbers fall from their highs of early 2021, community pharmacists should embrace the opportunity to provide an expanded menu of essential services—such as point-of-care testing, vaccination administration, vaccine education and advocacy, and chronic care management, including collaborative drug therapy management (CDTM) and medication therapy management services.

Fortunately, today’s community pharmacists are well-positioned and more than capable of pivoting to these new services. It starts with pharmacies’ convenience and proximity to most Americans. For example, more than 90% of people in the United States live within 5 miles of a community pharmacy, according to research featured last year by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Additionally, patients visit their community pharmacist 12 times more frequently than their primary care provider, according to the CDC. Further, in recent years, many community pharmacies have built up experience in offering expanded patient-care services, making the adoption of COVID-19 testing and vaccination much less of a heavy lift.

Community pharmacists should consider offering the following services to enhance their identities as the centers of care in their communities:

Point-of-Care Testing

Point-of-care testing is nothing new to many pharmacists. More than 15,000 pharmacies already perform Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA)-waived tests for a variety of conditions, such as influenza and streptococcal pharyngitis, as well as to monitor chronic diseases through a wide range of CLIA-waived point-of-care testing, such as finger stick glucose, hemoglobin A1c, and lipid panels, according to the CDC. A recent research effort showed that the prevalence of CLIA-waivers in pharmacies increased by 45% from 2015 to late 2020, with most of the growth attributable to COVID-19.

Now, the stage is set for pharmacists to play a significant role in COVID-19 testing. Pharmacists have a number of options for providing COVID-19 diagnostic services, including selling home testing kits, collecting specimens to send to partner laboratories for testing and reporting, collecting specimens for on-site diagnostic testing and reporting, and collecting specimens for point-of-care antibody surveillance. Importantly, the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reimburses pharmacies for COVID-19 testing and influenza or RSV testing if done in conjunction with a COVID-19 test, which makes offering the service much more expedient for pharmacies.

Vaccinations

Pharmacists have been eager to begin contributing to the historic nationwide COVID-19 vaccination initiative. Most simply wish they could obtain more doses to deliver into patients’ arms, although this issue is likely to subside as vaccination manufacturing increases throughout coming months.

As production climbs, community pharmacists will be prepared to leverage their local relationships and convenient locations to become key players in the wide-scale administration of vaccines. Additionally, as trusted medical advisors to their communities, pharmacists have a crucial role in performing education and advocacy to help ensure community members understand the importance of vaccine compliance and following general COVID-19 safety measures.

Chronic Care Management

More than 3800 ambulatory care pharmacists in the United States are certified by the Board of Pharmacy Specialties to provide direct outpatient care, in addition to managing complex medication regimens and care delivery systems. These services are essential to many Americans who experience chronic conditions, as 6 in 10 US adults have at least 1 chronic disease and 4 in 10 have 2 chronic diseases, according to the CDC.

In addition to this, states such as Washington are paving the way for pharmacists as prescribers, furthering their ability to effectively manage chronic disease. In August of last year, the Washington State Department of Health published, “Guidance on Collaborative Drug Therapy Agreements.” This guidance highlights the advanced role of pharmacists who enter a CDTA with a provider to prescribe medications. Community pharmacists are ideally positioned to improve access to chronic care management due to their accessibility.

Although primary care physicians have traditionally been patients’ go-to providers for the management of chronic conditions, both ambulatory care and community pharmacists are likely to assume a more prominent role in chronic care management in the future. With a nation-wide projected shortage of primary care physicians expected to reach as high as 55,200 by 2032, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, pharmacists are primed to step into this void to deliver ongoing care to the growing number of Americans experiencing chronic conditions.

As the nation and world finally begin to emerge from a year-long pandemic, pharmacists have what we hope is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demonstrate that they are capable of stepping up to fill an essential role in public health. In the short-term, that means serving as indispensable community resources for testing and vaccination administration. In the long-term, it involves delivering more chronic care management to help their communities experience better health outcomes. Community pharmacists are ready to embrace the opportunity.

About the Author

Jason Ausili, PharmD, is the chief clinical officer at FDS, Inc, where he’s focused on delivering innovative clinical-based technology solutions that help mobilize pharmacists as care providers and practice at the top of their license. Jason received his Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Butler University in 2002 and has over 20 years of diverse industry experience. He’s held a variety of roles across the spectrum of community pharmacy and throughout his career has stayed centered on his aim to expand the scope of pharmacy practice, improve healthcare quality performance, and ensure pharmacists receive equitable payment for clinical services and improving patient outcomes.