Study: Empowering Pharmacists to Immunize Can Increase Vaccine Access, Reduce Health Disparities in Low-Income Communities

With more than 80,000 retail and outpatient pharmacy locations, pharmacists are the most accessible health care professionals in the United States.

A new paper published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association found that pharmacists can play a vital role in increasing vaccine awareness for individuals in low-income communities, particularly seniors, and can reduce health disparities.

Much of this is due to greater access to pharmacies compared with physician offices. In communities with a poverty rate of at least 30%, the paper found that the number of pharmacies is 15% higher than the number of physician offices. Furthermore, researchers noted that pharmacies offer significantly more hours for vaccination compared to physician offices.

“We believe that expanding the authority and ability of pharmacists to administer all FDA approved or authorized or CDC recommended vaccinations similar to their physician colleagues should be considered across state and federal programs,” said lead author Robert Popovian, PharmD, MS, chief science policy officer at the Global Healthy Living Foundation, in a press release. “During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacists were the health care professionals in the community with direct in-person access to patients, as most other providers established virtual care. As we return to normalcy, pharmacists are well-positioned to continue providing immunizations at convenient times and locations in all communities across the country. This has bolstered vaccination rates for COVID-19 and other preventable diseases.”

With more than 80,000 retail and outpatient pharmacy locations, pharmacists are the most accessible health care professionals in the United States, according to the study. A 2020 study found that for patients on Medicare, the median number of visits to community pharmacies was significantly higher than encounters with primary care physicians. By December 2021, pharmacies were administering more than two-thirds of COVID-19 vaccines, and as of April 2, 2022, pharmacies had administered nearly 10 million more flu vaccines than physician offices during the current flu season.

Mapping out pharmacies across the country also suggested increased access opportunities, according to the paper. A US Census-designated community was considered low-income if the share of families living at or below the federal poverty threshold exceeded 30%.

The national provider database maintained by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was used to measure the number of physician practices in each community and the number of pharmacy locations was based on the store location database provided by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. The investigators also calculated the number of hours physicians and pharmacists, respectively, worked to better understand availability of immunizations in the community.

Overall, within the low-income communities analyzed in the study, pharmacies offered nearly double the number of hours for immunizations. Specifically, 128,860 hours were offered at 1894 pharmacies, compared with 65,840 hours offered at 1646 physician offices.
Compared to physician offices that seek immunization reimbursement through Medicaid Part D, the gap expands from 15% more pharmacy locations to 203% more pharmacy locations. Furthermore, adjusting the hours of operation and the physician offices that seek immunization reimbursement through Medicare Part D, the gap expands further to 415%.

“Pharmacists are highly trained medical professionals, and these results demonstrate that if we further enable pharmacists to offer all vaccinations, we would meaningfully improve access for lower-income families,” said Juan Maya, MD, of the Rheumatology Center of Palm Beach, in the press release. “Notably, pharmacies can help improve accessibility for seniors with Medicare Part D coverage, a particularly vulnerable group. Keeping our patients up-to-date on their vaccinations is vital to preventing long-term consequences from preventable diseases.”

REFERENCE

Global Healthy Living Foundation study finds that empowering pharmacists to more widely immunize can increase vaccine access, reduce health disparities in low-income communities. News release. Global Health Living Foundation; May 11, 2022. Accessed May 11, 2022. https://ghlf.org/ghlf-news/global-healthy-living-foundation-study-finds-that-empowering-pharmacists-to-more-widely-immunize-can-increase-vaccine-access-reduce-health-disparities-in-low-income-communities/