Pharmacists have been increasingly recognized as key partners in the clinical services needed to manage the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a dramatic decline in operations for many businesses, but thankfully, pharmacies were not among them. When social distancing and shelter-in-place orders closed the doors on non-essential businesses, pharmacies found themselves being utilized in new ways to provide expanded and enhanced care to their clients. Those new services are now core community pharmacy models that are fundamentally changing the part pharmacy plays in health care for the better.
Increased accessibility was one of the key enhancements that occurred in pharmacies during the pandemic. Many patients were reluctant to risk exposure to the virus by coming into pharmacies to pick up their medications.
To address these concerns, pharmacies began providing more accessible options, such as curbside pickup and delivery services. Updating pharmacy management platforms to allow for virtual queues and mobile availability was another step that pharmacies took to address their clients’ safety concerns.
In addition to increasing the ways in which patients could access pharmacy services, the pandemic also led pharmacies to increase the number of services that they were providing. COVID testing is a key example of these types of services.
Pharmacies with a drive-through window were able to provide testing services for people without requiring that they leave their vehicles. Conversely, pharmacies without a drive-through met the need by setting up operations that allowed them to conduct testing in their parking lot.
Community pharmacies became one of the main locations for COVID vaccines once they became more broadly available. This cast pharmacies into a role that they had not traditionally played, but one that they were well equipped to carry out. The US Center for Disease Control reports that nearly 300 million1 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered by pharmacies associated with the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, all while continuing to provide the services for which they were previously known.
Increased appreciation for pharmacist expertise
The pandemic also highlighted the important role that pharmacists play in dispensing information. A survey2 conducted in 2021 revealed that throughout the pandemic, patients continued to prefer their local pharmacist to obtaining medication via mail order. Although mail order would seem a safer option for those concerned about virus exposure, 85% of adults said they would rather connect with a pharmacist.
Of those surveyed, 36% cited the fact that their pharmacist knows them personally as their reason for preferring the pharmacy as their source for medication. Another 32% said they rely on their pharmacist for answering questions related to medications.
In some cases, the information that pharmacists provided to patients was given via telepharmacy services. Although such services are still not permitted in all states, their use during the pandemic proved their value, pointing to the likely expansion of those services in the United States in the future. By 2023, more than half of the United States are expected3 to allow telepharmacy in some form as a way for patients to connect with their pharmacists remotely.
Increased involvement moving forward
As pharmacies stepped up and effectively carried out these new roles during the pandemic, a new appreciation began to grow in the medical community for the enhanced role that pharmacists could effectively play. Primarily, pharmacists were recognized as key partners in the clinical services that were needed to manage the pandemic.
For example, pharmacists were given the authority to prescribe and dispense the COVID-19 antiviral Paxlovid during the pandemic. To do this, pharmacists were required to determine whether Paxlovid was appropriate by walking each patient through a lengthy screening process.
The screening was followed by a review of medical records and, where appropriate, the physical filling of the prescription. When ultimately presenting the medication, pharmacists provided instructions on how to take it safely.
Moving forward, some legislators are looking to ensure that pharmacists will be able to continue to play such roles in the future. The Equitable Community Access to Pharmacist Services Act is a bipartisan bill introduced in the US House of Representatives in March 2022. The bill seeks to provide the legislative framework needed to empower pharmacists to provide pandemic-related health services in the future by giving them clear access to Medicare reimbursements for those services.
Specifically, the bill4 would add pharmacists as eligible providers of services for Medicare Part B beneficiaries, especially targeting those in medically underserved areas and those with health professional shortages. Should the bill become law, it would mark a dramatic change in the pharmacy industry, empowering pharmacists to continue to play the important new roles that they came forward to assume during the pandemic.
1. The Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/retail-pharmacy-program/index.html
2. National Consumer Survey: More than 8 in 10 Adults Prefer their Local Pharmacist over Mail Order, March 4, 2021, National Community Pharmacists Association, https://www.drugtopics.com/view/ncpa-most-adults-prefer-local-pharmacist-over-mail-order
3. Telepharmacy Rising: Challenges Accompany the Growth of Telepharmacy Use, August 1, 2022, Drug Topics Magazine, https://www.drugtopics.com/view/telepharmacy-rising-challenges-accompany-the-growth-of-telepharmacy-use
4. Pharmacy’s Top Priority: Medicare Provider Status Recognition, American Pharmacists Association, https://www.pharmacist.com/Advocacy/Issues/Provider-Status/Equitable-Community-Access-to-Pharmacist-Services-Act-ECAPS
About the Author
Lindsay Dymowski is president of Centennial Pharmacy Services, a leading medication-at-home pharmacy, and co-founder and principal of The Centennial Group, a pharmacy management company supporting community pharmacies and health systems. Combining more than 15 years of pharmacy experience with her entrepreneurial spirit, Lindsay knows exactly what drives successful pharmacies, launches collaborative provider programs, and gets the attention of payers - and it’s not dispensing medications. It’s how well you can support an organization's goals to better health outcomes with patient-centric pharmacy care.