Continuing Education Boosts Cancer-Specialized Walgreens Pharmacies

Cancer-focused continuing education programs seek to enhance cancer care at specialty pharmacies.

In February, more than 50 Walgreens specialty pharmacies were designated as cancer-specialized locations. These pharmacies are run by pharmacists and pharmacy technicians who underwent extensive continuing education as part of a curriculum developed by Walgreens and other cancer-focused and continuing education organizations.

The pharmacists and pharmacy technicians at these locations gained new knowledge about common cancers, including blood, breast, prostate, colorectal, and lung cancers. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) developed courses for common blood cancers, while the Oncology Nursing Society created the breast cancer curriculum.

Pharmacy Times Continuing Education took the lead on putting together the curriculum for both prostate and colorectal cancers, and the Advanced Studies in Medicine and its University of Tennessee Advance Studies in Pharmacy initiative generated the lung cancer course.

In an interview, Matthew Farber, Walgreens senior director for oncology disease state management, told Specialty Pharmacy Times about how this continuing education program can provide optimal care from pharmacy staff who are dedicated to staying up to date with the changing world of oncology.

SPT: Can you describe the benefits of Walgreens oncology clinical programs?

Farber: Our thought process in all of this is that we know cancer is an incredibly high-touch, high-need disease state. Given how care is changing—in that we have more and more therapies that are moving from IV to oral therapy, 40% of the oncology pipeline are oral care products—it means that those high-touch needs, which used to be done in the oncology office or the hospital where patients were sitting in a chair getting an IV, it means that they’re going to have that same care, but now at home taking pills. The role that really interacts with patients while they’re taking those medications oftentimes is a pharmacist. We know that in many of these cases, the last person to talk to a patient before they start their treatment can be that pharmacist. We wanted to make sure that our pharmacists, who are most often working with these patients, are educated about what those patients needs are, information on clinical updates, what’s new in certain disease states. That way we can best help the patient through this treatment.

SPT: Why were certain specialty pharmacies designated as a cancer-specialized location? How did they earn this title?

Farber: When we were looking at our locations across the country to include in this network, we looked at areas that already have a good deal of ‘scripts being filled in the oncology space, or that have certain proximities to large cancer programs. We wanted to make sure the cancer-specialized designations were in locations that would be as beneficial to as many patients and providers as possible. All of these were sites that already existed. We didn’t build or open any new sites specifically for this program. These were all taken from our network of local specialty pharmacies, that are close to 260 or so. As for what they had to do to go about getting the designation, the biggest part of all of this was clinical training. We identified courses and assigned over 20 hours of courses for our pharmacists and technicians to take in order to earn that designation. While there are hundreds of different types of cancers, and while we would love to educate our people on all the different types, that could be very challenging. So, we picked cancer types which are most prevalent: breast, colon, lung, prostate, and blood cancers. We also had some cancer basics, overviews, and discussions on what goes into filling ‘scripts. Oftentimes, cancer medications have higher prior authorization needs or they have additional patient assistance needs. We wanted to make sure our pharmacists and technicians were as educated as possible in those spaces. Those were the mandatory courses. That’s not to say that’s all there’s going to be. We’re working on a number of other courses as well.

SPT: How is Walgreens’ collaboration with the LLS crucial to the success of this continuing education program?

Farber: They’re a really vital organization in this, because they built the blood cancer training for us. Once our pharmacists complete that assigned training, LLS will be awarding the blood cancer certification to those pharmacies, essentially letting their constituency know that there are additional resources in their communities to help them deal and manage with their blood cancer diagnosis and treatment. It really is an innovative collaboration. They build and keep the training up to date. Any new clinical information or drug approvals will be included in future versions of the training. It really is an exciting piece of this. It also became a good model for us- And, they’re not the only external organization we’re partnering with to help build these training courses. We’re working with the Oncology Nursing Society for the breast cancer modules with the same model. They took what they had for their members, and we worked together to tweak it, so it’s more relevant for our pharmacists. They will be keeping it up to date and current for us as well.

SPT: Why is continuing education important for Walgreens pharmacists and pharmacy technicians at specialty pharmacies?

Farber: The cancer space is ever-changing. There was a time when the FDA was approving a new drug therapy almost every month, it seemed like.There’s still quite a few drugs on the horizon, so things are changing. With these new therapies comes new side effect management, new drug-drug interactions, and adverse events they have to report on. If we can be educated, then overall, we can help the patient not only stay on the therapy as prescribed by the doctor, but also then manage side effects and adverse events. If we are able to help patients identify when those side effects might come up, we can better help them manage those side effects. If they are better educated, then the hope is that they’ll stay on the therapy as prescribed, and they may not have to go to hospital emergency rooms. Ultimately, we’re trying to help patients as best we can, and if we’re as educated as we can be, we feel that’s a good way to go about doing that.

SPT: What can patients expect when visiting these cancer-specialized specialty pharmacies?

Farber: Within each of these pharmacies, we have designated 1 oncology pharmacist and 1 technician to be the lead oncology clinicians, in that they will be the ones dealing with all, if not nearly all, of the oncology ‘scripts coming through the pharmacy. It’s a good single point of contact, not only for patients, but for caregivers, prescribers, and providers as well. That interaction can happen face-to-face, as these are locations in the community, sometimes in hospitals and medical office buildings, but also it can be telephonically— if that’s what the patients prefers—we can certainly work with the patients and be flexible in that way to make sure they’re getting the information they need. It’s also someone who will be aware of the latest clinical information, and might understand how other drugs or comorbidities might interact with the current therapy they’re taking for their cancer diagnosis. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re hoping to have come out of these locations - bringing those additional assets into the communities, so our pharmacists and technicians can be seen as extensions of the cancer care team.

SPT: What is unique about Walgreens cancer-specialized specialty pharmacies that differentiates the level of care administered?

Farber: The biggest thing is the clinical and operational knowledge these locations have, and will have maintained throughout the course of their designation. We are not just having the education this year and that’s it. This needs to be updated every year, and then they will have a growing library of courses available to them through some of our other educational partnerships and CE programs that we have. The level of training, the outreach, and networking we are doing with some key cancer organizations also is a big differentiator. Part of our work with ONS, each of these oncology pharmacists are part of the Oncology Nursing Society now, and they’re engaged with that community of nurses. They’re going to LLS regional events, they’re going to ONS meetings. Getting involved with other organizationsis a key part of what they do, and being active in their communities with other events. It’s really bringing these additional resources to the patients.