2020 has been anything but uneventful. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every way of life on a global scale. Understandably, the healthcare industry has been particularly affected, and pharmacies are no exception.
The pandemic has brought about the rapid adoption of new technologies, services, and processes in rural and chain pharmacies alike. Between dealing with supply chain shortages, keeping up with evolving government guidelines, and implementing new patient care services, pharmacists—especially in small, independently owned stores—are under immense pressure.
With so much happening on a daily basis, rural community pharmacies need to pay attention to the latest changes and how it impacts their business and patient relationships. Here’s why and how rural pharmacies can expand patient care in response.
Rural Pharmacies as Trusted Community Caregivers
In rural, often underserved areas of the US, independent pharmacies are considered a building block of the community—and it’s reflected in their patient relationships and the care they provide.
“Rural pharmacies are a cornerstone of their communities, and the pandemic has only heightened that,” said Gina Moore, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
In general, pharmacies have a much broader footprint than physicians’ offices, which is why community pharmacies are often the first point of contact in rural areas. While more than 90 percent of Americans live within a mile and a half of a pharmacy, many are much farther from a doctor’s office.
That’s why it’s not surprising that there are an estimated 13 billion pharmacy visits annually, in comparison to 470 million annual physician office visits. COVID-19 has introduced several new opportunities for rural pharmacies to rise to the challenge and expand their clinical care services to better support patients.
Here’s how Susan Cantrell, RPh, CAE, CEO of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, explained the expanding role of community pharmacists during the COVID-19 pandemic: “We’re seeing many success stories about the important role pharmacists have played in this crisis. We really need to leverage what we’ve learned about pharmacists and other non-physician health care providers.”
How Rural Pharmacies Can Expand Patient Care in 2020 and Beyond
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacies are implementing new strategies and offerings to ensure patients have regular access to care. Here are a few ways rural community pharmacies can expand care in 2020 and beyond:
Independent pharmacies will play an essential role in expanding COVID-19 testing to rural, underserved communities. “Giving pharmacists the authorization to order and administer COVID-19 tests to their patients means easier access to testing for Americans who need it. Pharmacists play a vital role in delivering convenient access to important public health services and information,” said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, JD.
Pharmacies can now seek Medicare reimbursement for COVID-19 testing, making it much easier to implement, especially for smaller, independent stores that lack corporate support. This overcomes a critical obstacle to offering testing services in more convenient locations, such as community pharmacies.
Expanding point-of-care services are likely to continue in a post-COVID-19 era. Community pharmacists who are now offering point-of-care testing will be equipped to provide clinical services for certain disease states such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
Telepharmacy services are especially important in rural areas where patients may not have access to a healthcare provider. Offering telepharmacy services is an opportunity to support remote clinical care and education, empowering pharmacists to expand patient outreach both during and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This allows pharmacists to continue medication therapy management to maintain adherence and provide counseling to patients digitally. Some pharmacists are even identifying disease symptoms, issues relating to medication adherence, or potential drug interactions early on by touching base with patients on a regular basis as part of a larger remote patient monitoring strategy.
An increasing number of small, independent pharmacies are expanding their services to offer medication delivery, as well as drive-thru and curbside pickup. This offers patients a convenient way to access medications while maintaining social distancing.
Pharmacies can also utilize medication synchronization (med sync) to limit the number of in-person pharmacy visits each month. Med sync programs not only make refilling prescriptions more convenient for patients, but also improve medication adherence and increase pharmacy profitability.
Many community pharmacists are also preparing to offer COVID-19 vaccinations once they become available. For independent stores that don’t currently offer flu shots, shingles vaccines, and other immunizations, this will present an opportunity to expand services during the COVID-19 pandemic and well after.
Keeping Current on Pharmacy News to Improve Patient Care
Like so many others in the healthcare field and beyond, rural pharmacies will need to pivot quickly to provide the best possible patient care during this time. Utilizing advanced pharmacy technology is one way that rural pharmacists are finding time for patient care, streamlining workflows, implementing new services, and ensuring timely, accurate payments from third-party payers.
It’s imperative that independent pharmacists in rural areas keep current on the latest developments as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold. In doing so, rural pharmacies can position themselves as even stronger pillars in the community, offering patients the care and peace of mind they need during unpredictable and confusing times like these.