We are at a turning point with health care in our country. The COVID-19 pandemic is seeing an exponential rise in the United States — and we’re running out of hospital beds. We think it’s time for community-centered care — and for pharmacies to get their due as an essential health care provider.
At the beginning of April 2020, the United States had over 216,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease. Just two weeks later, that number had soared to over 600,000 cases with no slowdown in sight. As the numbers continue to rise, our nation’s 5,200 community hospitals aren’t going to be enough to fight the pandemic. That’s just under 800,000 beds to go around, and confirmed cases are growing at a rate of 30,000+ per day (and even that number is rising). It’s time to rethink our response.
Community-Centered Care: How Pharmacies Can Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic by Keeping Patients Out of Emergency Rooms
For years now, we have advocated for a shift to patient-centered care in pharmacies. And while we’re still pushing for that, we want to take it one step further during this unprecedented time.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock famously stated, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” During a crisis like this, patient-centered care isn’t enough. We need community-centered care. Health care providers need to create strategies centered around communities as a whole rather than individual patients if we are going to see any gains in our fight against the coronavirus.
Here’s what we mean:
Shift First Point-of-Contact Away from Hospitals
Hospitals are struggling. In Italy — whose number of confirmed cases is eclipsed only by Spain and the U.S. — up to a third of the beds in some hospitals are occupied by coronavirus patients. Simply put, hospital-centered health systems cannot handle pandemics.
With infection rates (and panic) on the rise, the number of people going straight to their local emergency room when they start to show COVID-19 symptoms is also rising. As more COVID-19 patients occupy hospital space, the uninfected people coming into and out of hospitals are at a greater of risk of becoming infected themselves. They then drastically increase the risk of infecting others. It’s a domino effect with devastating results.
One solution to slow the spread is to change the public response. Going to the hospital at the first sign of symptoms could risk exposure for both the patient and numerous others. Instead, people need somewhere they can go for testing and treatment where they don’t risk that kind of exposure.
Why Pharmacies Need to Be COVID-19 Testing Sites
On April 8, 2020, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health authorized licensed pharmacists to order and administer COVID-19 tests to their patients. Here is the statement from HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Brett P. Giroir, M.D.:
“The accessibility and distribution of retail and independent community-based pharmacies make pharmacists the first point of contact with a healthcare professional for many Americans. This will further expand testing for Americans, particularly our healthcare workers and first responders who are working around the clock to provide care, compassion and safety to others.”
This is a game-changer. Many pharmacists have already shifted to curbside or drive-through procedures, even for clinical care. Making sure to follow proper safety protocols, pharmacies could also provide COVID-19 testing for people who believe they may be infected. This would get patients who are well enough to drive themselves to the ER out of hospital waiting rooms and into your parking lots — where it’s much safer for them and for everyone else.
Cementing the New Era Pharmacy’s Place as a Trusted Health Care Provider
For too long, pharmacies have been seen as pill-pushers and not as the health care providers they can be. More and more pharmacies are expanding into clinical care with programs like immunizations, diabetes care, hypertension management, and smoking cessation.
For minor ailments or tests, it makes more sense for patients to drive five minutes to their community pharmacy than it does to schedule a doctor’s visit or check into the ER. Pharmacists have the knowledge and the training to do more than simply dispense medication. Over the last few years, the government has granted you the authorization to do just that. Now it’s just a matter of educating the public.
People only know what they know. Don’t look for a press conference any time soon telling them to come to your pharmacy to get tested for COVID-19. You’ll have to take care of that part yourself. If you weren’t before, now is the time to get active on social media and start interacting with your community. Get on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and show your neighborhood what you are doing to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Resources are limited. Hospital staff are spread thin. The more people seeking hospital treatment for possible COVID-19 symptoms, the less space available for other patients. Unpredictable emergencies, chronic illnesses, and babies on the way don’t really care that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. A hospital shouldn’t be the first stop for someone wanting a COVID-19 test.
By all means, patients should go to the ER if they need to. But if they don’t, we think pharmacies are a much better first point-of-contact. In a time like this, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one. It’s time to focus on community-centered care.