Are Pharmacists the Secret to Saving Health Care?

Are Pharmacists the Secret to Saving Health Care?


How these professionals can improve patient outcomes and curb rising health care costs

A new study shines a light on an “untapped resource” in health care which, if properly utilized, could have a significant impact on improving patient care and reducing costs: pharmacists.

“When pharmacists are integrated into direct patient care in a team with other health professionals, there are positive effects on patient outcomes as well as reduced health care costs,” study author Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the journal Drug Topics.

Read on to find out how licensed pharmacy professionals can support doctors’ efforts and help patients get the best care possible.

How pharmacists can help reduce drug costs and increase adherence

“As the professionals actually dispensing the medications doctors prescribe, pharmacists can help battle high drug costs,” suggested Medical Economics. The article noted that numerous studies have found that patients’ adherence is closely tied to the out-of-pocket cost of their prescription drugs.

Medication non-adherence is a costly problem for everyone in health care. A study published in the American Journal of Managed Care found that patients who adhered to their prescription schedules saved up to $5,341 annually in medical costs, while patients who were non-adherent cost as much as $2,763 more to treat.

For more on this topic, read How Technology is Improving Medication Adherence

Pharmacists can often help patients find the most cost-effective medications for treating their conditions, either by suggesting a generic if available, or informing them of discounts from pharmaceutical companies or apps such as GoodRx or OneRx.

A typical patient sees a pharmacist 10 times more per year than their primary care doctor.

The typical patient sees a pharmacist 10 times more often than a primary care provider in the course of a year, said Joe Moose, Pharm D., co-owner of a North Carolina-based chain of independent pharmacies, in the article. “That means we have 10 times more opportunities to reinforce the care plan. That’s the real way you save on drug costs.” He suggests that doctors make pharmacists part of the care team by sharing patient treatment plans with them whenever possible.

Partners in patient education and prescribing

Pharmacists also can play an important role in providing patient education, performing tests to identify infections, administering vaccines, and even in some cases distributing medications without a doctor’s prescription. Pharmacists in California, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C. can prescribe birth control, reported the Pharmacy Times.

Expanding pharmacists’ role could also help combat the opioid epidemic. “State-specific standing orders could be revised to permit pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription from a physician or nurse practitioner,” suggested Drug Topics. Currently, only 23 states allow naloxone to be purchased at a pharmacy without a prescription.

Pharmacists can help ease the doctor shortage, if issues related to prescribing and reimbursement are resolved.

Pharmacists are also poised to ease the looming doctor shortage, if legal and reimbursement hurdles are overcome. California’s Senate Bill (SB) 493, which was signed into law in 2013, is intended to make better use of what many consider the most accessible yet underutilized health care practitioner in the community, as explained in this public radio story out of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The area is already feeling the pinch of having 35 percent fewer primary care doctors than the federal government recommends.

By allowing pharmacists to “practice at the ‘top of their license’—the peak of what they are capable and licensed to do,” as Johns Hopkins’ study author Gronvall put it, it would keep primary care providers focused on other medical issues that only they are trained to handle.

However, one major obstacle still stands in their way. Pharmacists are not recognized by Medicare or CMS, and that limits them in terms of billing for their professional services, Lisa Kroon, chair of the department of clinical pharmacy at UC San Francisco, told Valley Public Radio. “And until that gets resolved, most pharmacists won’t be embracing their new role.”

Working together can boost productivity, profits

Still, the future holds promise for doctors and pharmacists who are willing to work together, said Bryan Ziegler, PharmD, executive director of the Kennedy Pharmacy Innovation Center in Columbia, S.C., at a meeting of the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Doctors who referred more patients to pharmacists made 15 percent more money than their colleagues.

“We are actually making physicians more productive,” Ziegler said of his own company. “Doctors who referred more patients to our pharmacists made more money than their colleagues — 15 percent more. They saw the same number of patients, but they were able to clear up their schedules so they could see more complex patients, do more care, and see more new patients.”

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