Turn on a television show or pick up a health publication and it’s often the doctor who’s the hero. Whether they’re caring for a sick child, resuscitating heart attack victims on the subway or performing a life-saving surgery, physicians are hailed as the health care heroes who swoop in to save the day and make the difference between life and death.
However, behind the scenes of the health care industry, pharmacists also play a critical role in delivering care and improving the quality of life for patients. Pharmacists are frequently an essential source of information to educate patients about the medications they’re taking and to prevent misuse. And in many cases, pharmacists have closer and longer-term relationships with patients than their doctors.
At a time in which many community pharmacies are under siege from national competitors and declining reimbursement rates, new technology solutions can help increase engagement, create efficiencies and strengthen the role of pharmacists in the evolving health care system.
The Unsung Heroes of Patient Health
Pharmacists play a vital role in delivering health care. Although patients may visit many doctors throughout their life, or even several physicians and specialists during the course of their treatment for an illness, most will return to the same pharmacy for decades.
That’s because pharmacists are among the most well-respected and trusted members of their communities. A recent Gallup poll found that pharmacists rank among the most honest and ethical professionals in the United States with a slightly higher rate of trust than doctors.
Often, it falls on pharmacists to answer questions when physicians don’t have enough information about the prescriptions that patients are using. Pharmacists also educate patients on medications, issue alerts and reminders, and help them adhere to their physician’s orders.
Yet, pharmacists are under siege by increasing competition from mail order and national chain pharmacies. Some insurers now require patients to obtain their medications exclusively from national chains, which are designed to deliver maximum profitability and don’t always foster a strong connection between pharmacists and patients.
Pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) are also putting more pressure on community pharmacists through declining reimbursement rates. Negotiations with pharmaceutical companies were supposed to lower costs for consumers, but they are only lowering reimbursement rates and forcing community pharmacies to choose between losing money and filling a prescription or losing business to big boxes. In recent years, pharmacists have organized to fight back against unfair practices pushed by PBMs.
Pharmacists are Positioned to Improve Outcomes and Lower Costs
As Americans take more prescriptions than ever, the importance of pharmacists will only grow in the coming years. Half of American adults regularly take a prescription medication—with many over the age of 57 taking at least five medications or supplements daily.
Most medications are beneficial when used as prescribed, but misuse and its consequences are also on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an average of 1.3 million people visit emergency departments annually due to inappropriate medication use.
Although opioids drive a large portion of those overdoses and deaths, many basic medications can cause complications if used improperly. Adding to the risk is the fact that many older patients use additional OTC medications and supplements that could compound adverse health effects.
Pharmacists are a valuable resource for educating patients, and a report by CVS found nearly 60 percent of surveyed patients said they “often” or “sometimes” ask pharmacists questions. With information gathered from patient interviews in conjunction with labs and physical exam information, pharmacists can make recommendations for therapy adjustment.
Ambulatory care pharmacists working in clinics and provider offices can also meet at length with patients individually and work alongside prescribers to optimize treatment. Some are also providing clinical services as an additional revenue stream, offering greater choice in care for consumers.
Technology Can Help Pharmacists Play Their Part
Pharmacists must now consider how they can better engage existing patients and collaborate with prescribing physicians while also attracting new patients. It is no longer enough just to open the doors, stock prescriptions and serve patients with old fashioned customer service.
Pharmacists must adopt the latest technologies to keep pace and better serve their patients, especially as the demands of baby boomers give way to tech-enabled younger generations. Consumers are increasingly looking for mobile functionality in many areas of their lives, including health care.
According to a report by EY, half of consumers are comfortable contacting their physicians digitally and many are already using new technologies to augment the patient-provider relationship. More than 70 percent of millennials say they want the ability to book appointments via mobile apps or to see doctors virtually, according to a report by Harris Poll.
Pharmacies can also adopt new technologies to enhance the customer experience and their own operations. The best solutions are those with demonstrated success on the physician side. A range of single-purpose technology vendors exist on the market, but pharmacists should take a note from doctors and look to solutions that integrate various functions into one cohesive workflow.
With new technology solutions, pharmacists can remain connected to patients and answer questions about their treatment, send reminders about expiring medicine, seasonal updates, flu shots and more. Cloud-based solutions can help enhance prescriber collaboration and communications, eliminate paper processes, effectively engage patients online and drive clinical revenues.
Most importantly, greater use of technology can enable pharmacists to solidify their critical role in the health care system.
About the Author
Michael Morgan, CEO of Updox
With a successful track record in helping organizations use technology to transform the way care is delivered, Mike has more than 25 years of health care experience leadership within software, behavioral health and HIT organizations. Updox has made the Inc 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America for the past four consecutive years.