Experts: Working from Home is Largest Challenge for Specialty Pharmacy During COVID-19, But Has Unexpected Benefits

Although working from home created challenges for contacting stakeholders, some companies saw higher accuracy and fewer sick days among employees.

Although most companies had planned for localized or regional natural disasters, the global scale of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic brought sudden, unexpected challenges for all stakeholders in specialty pharmacy. An expert panel discussed the changes to their businesses and what they think the future holds during a session titled “Lessons Learned from COVID-19” at the 2020 National Association of Specialty Pharmacy (NASP) Annual Meeting and Expo.

Because specialty pharmacy frequently operates via mail-order, panelist Melissa Nelson, PharmD, CSP, regional operations manager at Fairview Pharmacy Services, said it was actually well-positioned for a pandemic situation. With most interactions already taking place over the phone and medications delivered to patients’ homes, Nelson said most patients did not experience interruptions in their care.

“I feel from [the patient] standpoint, we were very well suited to continue to provide that streamlined care for them,” Nelson said.

Other aspects of the specialty pharmacy field experienced larger interruptions, however. Lou Dallago, vice president of channel management at Pfizer, said remote work was a significant change for the company, which made keeping in touch with stakeholders and managing patient issues more challenging.

Dallago said Pfizer quickly realized that products were not in the right places to handle increased demand and they learned to be more flexible with the supply chain. Similarly, they soon realized the need to meet patients where they were using technology.

“We needed to bring technology to the patient as quickly as possible because they were just not having the ability to have that 1-on-1 conversation with their health care provider,” Dallago said.

Kyle Skiermont, PharmD, senior vice president of specialty pharmacy and home delivery services at Prime Therapeutics, agreed, adding that these changes needed to occur extremely fast at the beginning of the pandemic. For example, Skiermont said the shortage of albuterol inhalers was unexpected, requiring suppliers to be agile and adjust quickly.

“I don’t know that anybody thought that a pandemic would lead to shortage in the supply chain on something like albuterol inhalers, or hydroxychloroquine, for that matter,” Skiermont said.

Despite these obstacles, all of the panelists agreed that some of the changes could have a long-term positive effect on specialty pharmacy. The heightened interest in vaccinations could lead to increased immunization rates, Skiermont said, particularly for the upcoming flu season.

“I can’t remember a time in my career that vaccinations were discussed as much as they’re being discussed right now, which I think ultimately could be something that’s positive,” Skiermont said.

He added that working from home has also caused unexpected benefits. Prime Therapeutics has seen an increase in accuracy and productivity across some job functions and has noted a decrease in sick days or days off. Nelson said she has found people to be more available for meetings or discussions, without the need to schedule around travel plans or in-person events.

Still, the panelists concluded that they hope there is a balance between remote meetings and in-person events after the pandemic. Dallago said virtual meetings are good for fast decision making, but in-person discussions are necessary for strategizing and working through problems.

Ultimately, Skiermont said his greatest takeaway from the pandemic is that it is possible to handle this type of disaster.

“I think the reality is that some of this remote work has shown that you can have successful discussions with people [and] you can move things forward successfully,” he concluded.

REFERENCE

Skiermont K, Dallago L, Nelson M. Lessons Learned from COVID-19. Virtual NASP 2020 Annual Meeting and Expo. Presented September 16, 2020. Accessed September 16, 2020.