Ride the Wave of Pharmacy Surge: Three Ways to Support Community Heroes

The continued upward trend in testing and vaccination demand, coupled with staffing shortages, technology gaps, and never-ending to-do lists, exacerbates spikes in patient volume and workload for pharmacy professionals.

It’s no secret that pharmacists have been challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to an overwhelming list of daily responsibilities, pharmacists face the clamor for COVID-19 vaccinations, treatment, and testing, especially in response to the Omicron variant. For example, the number of fully vaccinated Americans has steadily increased since summer 2021, with 63% of the population currently fully vaccinated. And the pace of vaccinations does not appear to be slowing down.

As of January 20, 2022, 86 million booster-eligible people in the United States had not received their booster dose. The continued upward trend in testing and vaccination demand, coupled with staffing shortages, technology gaps, and never-ending to-do lists, exacerbates spikes in patient volume and workload for pharmacy professionals.

The positive aspect of these challenging times is an abundance of new opportunities for pharmacies as clinical service providers. The pandemic proved that pharmacists are uniquely positioned to expand their expertise beyond the traditional scope of work, such as dispensing medications, and make a dramatic impact within their local communities. With 90% of Americans living within 5 miles of a pharmacy, pharmacists have assumed a larger, more active role in consumer-driven health care and now play a vital role in removing barriers to patient care.

The public perception of pharmacists is changing. Patients view their pharmacists as trusted caregivers to support a range of health needs beyond medication dispensing. Population health, consumer-driven health care and federal/state legislation have also contributed to the evolution in pharmacists’ roles.

I recently sat down with Michele Belcher, president of the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA), to hear her stance on the fundamental and growing role of pharmacists in consideration of the challenges COVID has presented. As NCPA President and owner of Grants Pass Pharmacy, in Grants Pass, Oregon, Michele offers a unique perspective on the current and future state of the pharmacy profession.

Running her family-owned and operated pharmacy, Michele understands the critical role independent community pharmacies play in caring for patients across their region. Michele’s insightful and candid points support an emerging theme: Now is the time to turn the pharmacy profession’s COVID challenges into positive long-term change.

Three Ways to Support Community Pharmacies
Significant change in the pharmacy space can be accomplished through 3 essential efforts: implement technology to save time and coordinate care, initiate new clinical services to generate alternative revenue streams, and shift the pharmacy mindset from reactive to proactive workflow models.

1. Leverage technology to save time, address staff burnout and shortages
Among the factors that contribute to staff burnout, the largest driver is inadequate staffing to meet patient volume. Patient surge from large retail pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, that have temporarily closed due to staffing shortages has caused a ripple effect, especially for independent community pharmacies traditionally located in more rural communities.

According to Belcher, the impact is felt at Grants Pass Pharmacy. The pharmacy reports its volume of new patients has increased up to 850% more per day due to closed pharmacies in the area. Given the additional workflow burden to set up new patients coupled with the increased prescription volume, it is critical to assess staffing levels and prioritize workload distribution to reduce burnout.

The implementation of technology will enable pharmacy teams to streamline processes and maximize staff efficiency. Pharmacists deserve to be armed with technology solutions designed with their unique practice model in mind while also connecting them to the entire health care ecosystem.

Shared population health management platforms with specific medication management and pharmacy clinical services workflows enable pharmacists to play a larger role in the care coordination equation. The ability to coordinate patient care efficiently requires systems that connect pharmacists to other clinicians and payers.

Best practice platforms include workflows enabling the provider to integrate with multiple clinical sources to absorb data, enabling a comprehensive and efficient process to individually assess each patient’s medications and clinical risk factors. Technology solutions enabling documentation with automation alongside the ability to seamlessly check eligibility and bill for medical services at the point of care will revolutionize pharmacy team satisfaction and patient care value. Using advanced technologies, pharmacists become more efficient while making smarter, more informed patient care decisions.

2. Initiate new clinical services to generate revenue streams
Assisted by technology, pharmacy teams should next consider adding new clinical services and revenue streams. Pharmacists play a vital role in patient care beyond medication management.

Pharmacists are critical for population health initiatives, disease management, and caring for under-served and high-risk communities. Now is the time to capitalize on this wave.

For example, there is an increased demand for pharmacists to provide patient care services. Pharmacists as caregivers include patient visits on public health items, such as tobacco cessation, hormonal contraceptives, and assessments for indicated adult and pediatric vaccines.

Chronic disease management for diabetes, hypertension, and asthma are also evolving opportunities for pharmacy professionals. Pharmacists are regularly providing cognitive services, which should be compensated—and with appropriate technology solutions and payer arrangements—will be via medical billing or unique value-based care payment arrangements.

Offering clinical services as billable care visits presents a creative and unique way for pharmacists to generate revenue streams while supporting the overburdened health care system. For these ideas and efforts to come to fruition, the health care system must recognize pharmacists as providers, both federally and locally, and provide the necessary credentialing and enrollment tools.

Herein lies an important opportunity for pharmacy leaders at the community, regional, state, and national levels to ensure proper reimbursements for clinical services. Equipping pharmacists with electronic health record technology that enables them to perform and bill for all medical services they perform is fundamental for opening the door to new revenue streams for patient services.

3. Shift to a proactive versus reactive mindset
Finally, proactive versus reactive processes for items such as medication dispensing and pharmacy consultations help free up the pharmacy team to provide other clinical services. For example, implement medication synchronization strategies by shifting to an appointment-based model in which patients schedule times to pick up all medications and receive valuable pharmacist consultations during these monthly meetings.

This accomplishes an increased efficiency in workflow by having all prescriptions filled at once, while enabling a focused opportunity for the pharmacist provider to engage and document billable patient assessment encounters.

However, it is important to note that before any drastic changes to pharmacy services are made, patient satisfaction and convenience must be considered. An appointment-based model may work for some patients, whereas the convenience and flexibility of stopping by the pharmacy at the patient’s convenience is preferred by others. Implementing the right processes and technology to manage both approaches is ideal.

Conclusion
The time is ripe for the health care industry to fully leverage pharmacists’ knowledge, expertise, skillsets, and trust across their communities to support the overburdened health care system. Advanced technology and maximized opportunities for reimbursable services should lead to the hiring of more staff, thus a reduction in burnout and improved job satisfaction. It is equally important to remain open and adaptive to reprioritization of tasks and shifting staff responsibilities to alleviate staff burnout and ensure all team members are practicing at the top of their license.

Belcher concludes with an important reminder for us all. Offer technician leadership training that improves professional satisfaction and develops leaders who will help the organization meet its goals. And never forget to motivate your team through positive praise, incentives, regular communication, and breaking down goals into small and manageable tasks.

About the Author
Tara Pfund, PharmD, has worked in the pharmacy space for over 15 years, with an emphasis on clinical program development. She is a national expert on community pharmacy reimbursement for clinical services and is passionate about optimizing healthcare for patients in the community via innovative and unique solutions. Pfund has extensive background in national chain community pharmacy practice and clinical services design. She currently works at AssureCare where she is leading the development, design, and strategy for various clinical services solutions supporting pharmacist providers.