By Thomas E. Hanzel, Pharm.D., MBA, vice president of long-term care and nutraceuticals, Parata.
The role of a pharmacist in today’s world is constantly evolving. While at times seen just as pill pushers, pharmacists are now directly involved in patient care more than ever. The focus of moving pharmacists away from counting pills and towards the front to counsel patients and ensure medication adherence is as critical as it has ever been.
This pandemic has now pushed pharmacists to a more prominent and proactive role as true frontline healthcare providers, specifically those in retail settings.
The transition catalyst has been two-fold. With patients wary of going into primary care doctor offices or the hospital in fear of exposure to the virus, retail pharmacies and pharmacists quickly became patients’ primary source of healthcare and education. With 90% of Americans living within two miles of a community pharmacy, it’s no surprise this transition is rapidly occurring. Now, with vaccines sent to about 6,500 retail pharmacies across the country, and soon to be up to 40,000 retail pharmacies, pharmacists are on the forefront, leading the charge of vaccine immunization efforts.
The Vaccines Are Here, Now What?
As vaccines begin to arrive at pharmacies, there is a communal sigh of relief that normalcy might not be far off. However, for pharmacies and pharmacists, routine immunization of their communities is a far cry from normal. The day-to-day operations of the pharmacy will not cease to exist simply because there is a need for a new vaccine. The patient counseling, prescription filling, doctor phone calls, and critical everyday activities of the pharmacy will continue as the vaccine line grows.
The pharmacists, techs, and staff must incorporate the task of COVID-19 immunization into their already bustling operations. Even though large chains such as CVS and Walgreens are hiring pharmacists by the thousands, and pharmacy job listings are up 35% compared to last year, many small community retail pharmacies simply don’t have the option to just find and add qualified staff. Instead, to combat the rise in businesses many have chosen to turn to a more innovative solution to their problems – technology.
Automation: Bringing Pharmacists to the Front of Patient Care
Through implementing technology, automation is able to perform the redundant tasks of a pharmacist efficiently and accurately. Activities such as pill counting, packaging, and even verification can now be professionally handled by machines, and pharmacists can focus their attention on their patients. While the technology works quickly and quietly, pharmacists can be out in front counseling patients on medication management therapies, and of course, vaccine administration.
While pharmacists are already well-versed regarding immunizations, with annual flu vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccine brings another level of urgency, influx of customers, and correlating counseling. For instance, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two separate appointment times less than 30 days apart, taking up significantly more time to address questions that come with a new vaccine. With the Johnson & Johnson vaccine recently being approved as a one-time vaccine, there are fewer patient visits; however, each pharmacy still has an abundant amount of administration data that it needs to track and record according to vaccine protocol.
These vaccines also bring a focus on time management as the need to help patients move in and out of the pharmacy in the most efficient, but socially distanced manner. At the same time, the pharmacy staff still has to answer phones, dispense prescriptions, and perform other necessary essential tasks.
Pushing the Profession Forward
When the current COVID-19 vaccinations are all said and done, which we know won’t be for some time, there will still be an immense opportunity for pharmacies to lean on automation. As mentioned, pharmacists are already the go-to provider for the flu vaccine every year and will most likely continue to be the most accessible healthcare professional but now will possibly also be responsible for annual COVID-19 vaccines – or boosts – based on new variants as well.
Many pharmacies don’t realize they are already filling enough prescriptions to immediately meet the return on investment needed to implement technology. Additionally, with technology in the mix, the reallocated time can give an advantage to these pharmacies, allowing pharmacists to focus their attention on clinical initiatives, outside training, disease state reviews, medication management, and more value-added services, giving them a much-needed competitive edge.
The resurgence in respect as true frontline healthcare workers for pharmacists is an important as ever. Pharmacists are already well known to be diligent and hardworking professionals, but they can’t do it all on their own. With the help of technology, pharmacy operations can be extremely efficient and streamlined. Pharmacists can work at the top of their licenses and vaccinate both their patients in the pharmacy, as well as go out into the community to vaccinate the vulnerable in long-term care and skilled nursing facilities. Automation can provide the time and efficiencies pharmacists need to keep pushing the profession forward.
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