Pharmacists today stand before an open horizon teeming with possibility. Over the last few years, they’ve navigated the tumultuous waters and rocky cliffs of the COVID-19 pandemic and built new vehicles through which care can be delivered to patients. And in the process, their roles have evolved significantly — to the great benefit of patients and pharmacies alike.
Consider the findings of the 2022 Medication Access Report. When patients went to the pharmacy in 2021 to pick up their prescription, 79% said it cost more than expected — up from 67% the year prior. But fortunately for patients, pharmacists were often able to help. Nearly a third of patients said they leaned on their pharmacist in 2021 to provide a cash price or cheaper alternative when they found their medication cost more than expected — a role pharmacists are embracing. More than half said helping patients afford their medications was a fulfilling or very fulfilling part of their job.
This pattern extends beyond helping patients find cheaper medications, too. Over a third of patients said they relied more on their pharmacist in the last 12 months to provide condition and medication information as well as explain benefit and payment options.
Meanwhile, pharmacy staff ranked patient-facing duties, in general, as most fulfilling during perhaps the most demanding time of their careers. In fact, when asked what their single most fulfilling job component was, an overwhelming majority said counseling patients on their medications.
In other words, pharmacists have entered a new frontier. And though the path forward might be rocky, and they might have to navigate it amid burnout and exhaustion, the direction is nonetheless clear. For pharmacists to survive, and even thrive, in this ever-changing landscape, they must continue exploring and embracing patient-centric digital health tools.
Editor's note: A version of this article was originally published Aug. 31, 2022 on Drug Store News.
How pharmacy pressures could yield ‘diamonds’
Though the shift was years in the making, pharmacists have more recently stepped into more prominent and important care team roles, filling gaps in primary care, vaccine administration and medication and care counseling. Last year in particular, pharmacists balanced a greater role in patient care with an increasing task load, including COVID-19 immunizations, prescription home delivery, patient follow-up calls related to refills and other immunizations and testing.
Meanwhile, market dynamics have left pharmacies facing pressure on multiple fronts. Contending with burnout and exhaustion amid the risk of losing patients who can’t afford their medications, even with insurance, hasn’t been easy. And these challenges are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
New entrants offering patient consumerism tools and services abound. The latest hoping to solve the nation’s medication affordability woes is Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and an investor on ABC’s “Shark Tank” television series. Cuban’s new company is an online pharmacy, the Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company, and it could have big implications for retail and independent pharmacies.
The promise of steep discounts over ‘retail prices’ — without regard for the services and prices that many independent pharmacies can provide — has many pharmacists hunkering down for another rocky season.Drug Topics"The Good, The Bad, and the Missed Opportunity of Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company," Feb. 15, 2022
As the name implies, the medication affordability company offers generic drugs priced at the cost of making them, plus a 15% markup and a $3 pharmacy fee. In other words, the company’s promised savings for patients are touted as even cheaper than pharmacist could put the drug on a shelf. Add on the promise of home delivery and some independent pharmacists are reportedly feeling spooked.
Whether Cuban’s approach is successful obviously remains to be seen. But initial buzz was lively, with mainstream media outlets like NPR, Forbes, the Washington Post and even Town & Country, covering its launch. And with medication affordability challenges continuing to linger for patients, Cuban’s new company is yet another new reality pharmacies must accommodate.
To truly adapt and step into these new roles as part of the patient care team, pharmacists need tools to help alleviate manual processes and surface the best price for patients within their existing workflows. When a patient shows up and they can’t afford a medication they’ve been prescribed or they present a discount card the pharmacy isn’t sure about, having that information within workflow could save valuable time and energy.
Too often, though, that’s not an option for pharmacists. Only 36% of pharmacists said they have patient-specific benefit information in their system, and just 41% can surface discount card options. Direct connections with biopharma companies, however, could help surface discount card options, along with connections to educational materials and discount programs.
Technology can also enable pharmacists to spend more time interacting with patients by quickly and accurately doing the heavy lifting on repetitive tasks. For instance, automated central fill models can create efficiencies for dispensing prescriptions and allow for the scale of direct-to-patient delivery. When connected to the pharmacy management system, central fill operations can also enable scheduled pick-up options for patients. A reminder can then flow through the retail pharmacy management system to the patient via text or the retailer’s preferred patient app connection.
In other words, technology options can help maintain store visits and set up the retail pharmacy as a “hub” for patient care activities — not just medication pick-up. In turn, this creates an opportunity to include pharmacists in emerging digital health virtual care teams.
Pharmacies with strong recurring patient bases could benefit greatly from this type of automation. On average, patients visit their pharmacy 35 times a year.[ref](# ""Pharmacists Want More Time with Patients," Drug Topics, March 18, 2019") While that might seem like a good amount, there is opportunity for improvement.
Patient-pharmacy engagement should not only be necessary but also meaningful. For some patients, that could mean reducing those interactions through, for example, synching medication refills. Multiple studies have shown that medication synchronization can dramatically improve patient adherence. It could also consolidate tasks for providers with potential efficiency gains included.
Ideal solutions can even embed capabilities into existing patient apps to remind them it’s time to schedule a refill. This could not only help the patient stay adherent, but also give the pharmacy a more predictable window for having the medication available in store — if home delivery isn’t the patient’s preferred method.
With more than half of the pharmacists surveyed saying they don’t have time to complete their job effectively most days, any time and resource savings could be crucial. Because when pressure mounts, it could be the difference between a pile of dust and a pile of diamonds. The latter is a boon to patients and pharmacists, while the former is a future no one wants to see.
To learn more about how pharmacists are helping patients with medication affordability, read the 2022 Medication Access Report.