Connecting Dots with Data: New Tools Pharmacists Need to Help Their Patients Succeed

The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including supply concerns and staffing shortages, have made technological solutions become more crucial.

In the retail pharmacy business, where I worked for more than a decade, we focused on getting as many patients as we could in and out the door. Brisk business was the name of the game and volume was important to our bottom line.

However, the specialty pharmacy business is entirely different, with quality being more important than quantity when it comes to patient interactions. We are part of the care team and we are expected to get to know patients and serve as a resource as they move through the various phases of care.

We also serve as a conduit for the critical information that flows between providers, payers, and patients. Frequent contact with patients to find out how they are doing, making sure they are following proper medication adherence, and not experiencing any complications or adverse effects (AEs) is an important part of the job.

We do not solely fill prescriptions and get patients out the door. We stay as close as we can to each patient, collecting and sharing the information that helps them maintain the best possible health.

It has been immensely gratifying to move into specialty pharmacy and serve as an important resource to patients. However, the communications and data sharing piece of the job is time-consuming, as there are simply not enough hours in the day to get all the information we need to truly understand what is happening in the life of each patient.

My colleagues and I are heavily dependent on data technologies to help us adequately serve patients. Due to the lingering effects of COVID-19, including supply concerns and staffing shortages, these technologies are only becoming more crucial as time goes by.

Here are 3 technological innovations that a specialty pharmacist, like myself, relies upon today and will likely rely upon even more in the coming years:

1. Smartphones Help to Enable New Connections

As specialty pharmacists attempt to keep patients on track with their medication regimens, we conduct monthly outreach to each patient to learn about any AEs, complications, financial concerns, or other barriers to medication adherence.

A limitation to relying solely on monthly phone calls can mean letting important information fall through the cracks. Smartphones allow for texting, which has become a preferred means of communication for many people. Specialty pharmacists have capitalized on this trend to reach out to or respond to patients more frequently and with less formality.

2. Smart Devices and Systems Help Gather and Share Information

We rely on patients to tell us how adherent they are to their medication schedule, but there are sometimes gaps in memory that prevent us from getting the full picture. In addition, other patients are reluctant to tell us if they skip doses.

Relying on smart devices can help us passively collect information on medication use. Using smart systems can better alert us if a patient has fallen off their medication. When we get alerts about a patient, we can contact them to find out what is preventing them from taking their medications.

Technologies make us less reliant on what patients tell us and offer a clearer view of what problems we need to get out in front of.

3. Cloud Computing: Bringing the Data Together

One long-standing pain point in our health care system is that important information about patients is often kept in disparate, siloed databases in physicians’ offices, clinics, insurance providers, and pharmacies. This translates to important data not being shared by stakeholders, which would help in informing treatment decisions.

Fortunately, cloud computing and electronic medical records have made inroads on that problem. It is easier today to track the patient as they go from the hospital to the clinic to the pharmacy, generating data every step of the way.

This is all thanks to information silos that have begun to give way to cloud platforms and interoperable data, as electronic health records have become more ubiquitous.

Specialty pharmacy not only offers the opportunity to join the care team, but it acts as a resource and support for patients as they navigate a complex health care system. Even with this knowledge, the pharmacist will only be effective in this role if we have the information we need.

Data technologies offer us a much fuller picture of what is happening in the life of the patient. They enable us to more effectively support patients as well as feed important information to providers and other stakeholders in the patient’s journey.

With the COVID-19 pandemic entering its third year, genuine patient engagement is as important to the specialty pharmacy today as it has ever been. We need to use the advanced data tools that are available to us today to avoid the risk of patients falling through the cracks.

About the Author

Dale Christensen, PharmD, Manager, Pharmacy Fulfillment, Tennessee Oncology.