Helping Pharmacists Excel in the ‘New Normal’

With more work and less staff, we need to examine how we can better support pharmacists in the new normal brought on by COVID-19.

Pharmacists’ roles are not what they used to be in pre-COVID times and likely won’t return to that way for quite some time, if ever. Pharmacists continue to combat COVID-19 with vaccination efforts and testing coupled with COVID-19 fallouts, such as the decline in routine childhood vaccinations and a potentially difficult upcoming flu season.

And though pharmacists haven't slowed down, the overwork is catching up with them. In one survey, 73% of pharmacists cited higher work volume because of COVID-19, whereas another survey found support staff is limited. A National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) survey found that nearly 4 in 5 pharmacies are struggling to recruit pharmacy technicians. These two factors are likely contributing to growing burnout, with one-third of respondents in a separate poll feeling "a lot" or "totally" exhausted emotionally and physically.

With more work and less staff, we need to examine how we can better support pharmacists in this new normal. Here are some successes I've seen over the past year and a half that we should leverage and sustain moving forward.

Innovative uses of health IT tools

Having clear and direct communication between pharmacies and primary care providers has always been important but has proven to be even more essential this past year, especially given the critical role pharmacies have played in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. But archaic tools such as fax machines or phone calls weren't the reason for success—it was pharmacies' innovative use of existing technology to deliver information and care at remarkable speed.

Pharmacies have used Clinical Direct Messaging tools to electronically send COVID-19 vaccine information to primary care providers rather than relying on outdated and timelier mechanisms. Since December 2020, pharmacies across the country have used the technology to send more than 8 million COVID-19 immunization notifications to primary care providers nationwide. This innovation replaces the need to fill out paper forms, send faxes, or depend on patients to notify their primary care provider themselves.

Pharmacists aren't alone in their innovative efforts. Since February 2020, 41 health systems have leveraged clinical direct messaging to send more than 14 million electronic case reports for COVID-19 diagnoses to public health agencies across 64 jurisdictions nationwide.

Looking ahead, pharmacies should continue to leverage clinical direct messaging to communicate COVID-19 and flu vaccine statuses. This will be especially important this year as immunity to the flu viruses has likely waned in the past year because of a minor flu season in 2020.

Heighten the focus on pharmacist and patient relationships

Pharmacists face an uphill battle developing relationships with their patients. A patient-pharmacist interaction tends to be the last stop on a sometimes long and difficult health care journey for a patient. After a physician visit, labs, tests, and possibly a procedure, patients may not want to add the additional step of going to the pharmacy.

Patient issues aren't the only barriers separating them from their pharmacists. On the other side of the counter, the pharmacists have new workloads because of COVID-19 while continuing to fulfill their other duties, such as medication dispensing, insurance issues, phone calls, paperwork, and more.

But despite all this, pharmacists and patients' relationships are changing.

More people are visiting local pharmacies for care, according to a CVS study, with 17% reporting that they've sought out routine care at their pharmacy, up from 11% in 2020. A recent survey found that pharmacists received more questions from patients about medications (56%) and general health (68%) in the past 18 months.

But most pharmacists don’t regularly feel prepared to field these questions. The same survey found only 21% of pharmacists felt like they had access to all the patient information they needed to confidently provide proper medication and therapy advice.

Health information technology, such as price transparency tools, can help pharmacists proactively address cost concerns and help patients adhere to their medication regimens more effectively. Nearly all patients (94%) who've skipped a medication because of cost say they would have been willing to take a lower-cost alternative if their physician or nurse had suggested one.

One independent pharmacy owner reported significant results from his 3 New York pharmacy locations using this type of solution. He noted that pick-up rates reached nearly 90% (up from 60-70%), and for prescriptions that required resolution of cost concerns, prescription processing time went from 20 minutes to 5 minutes, a 75% reduction.

By minimizing the time pharmacists spend trying to understand the patient's drug benefit and out-of-pocket cost, pharmacies also minimize the time customers have to wait, which means happier patients who trust their pharmacy and keep coming back. All this together can help pharmacists and patients grow their relationship.

Tap technology to streamline administrative burdens

With all these new COVID-19 related workstreams, limited support staff and the growing relationship between pharmacists and patients, pharmacists’ time is precious. A recent poll found that nearly 8 in 10 pharmacists cited increased work volume contributing to growing stress levels, and 37% pointed specifically to increased paperwork. In another survey, manual prior authorization tops the list of stressors and delays they report facing.

The good news is that pharmacies are accelerating their use of technology to streamline these administrative burdens. A survey found that nearly half of pharmacists (48%) and two-thirds of prescribers (66%) report an increase in technology use over the past 18 months

Research has proven that health IT tools can decrease the time needed to discontinue a medication. Other tools can streamline the prior authorization process. Another study found that 71% of experienced providers who implemented electronic prior authorization reported faster time to patient care and that the tool reduced the time between submitting a prior authorization request and receiving a decision from the health plan by 69%.

The past year and a half has been a period of time like no other, but what is impressive is that there is a lot of great and hopeful changes to pharmacists' roles. Pharmacists have shown their ability to adapt and grow—and it's essential we support them through this process. Fortunately, technology that already exists today can help streamline pharmacists' administrative burdens and allow them to operate at full strength.

*Figures reported as of August 10, 2021