How pharmacists address the healthcare needs of patients

In addition to outlining patient’s medications, and teaching them what times of day to take the drugs that will help control their specific disease, pharmacists are now taking on a new role to address the growing healthcare needs and demands of Americans, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

For example, at Barney’s Pharmacy in Augusta, Ga., the pharmacy offers classes at the store for patients once a month on how to manage diseases with drugs, diet and exercise. This new service, according to the Times, reflects the expanding role of the nation’s pharmacists in ways that may benefit their customers and also represent a new source of revenue for the profession.” In fact, “some health plans are even paying pharmacists to monitor patients taking regular medications for chronic illnesses like diabetes or heart disease.” And these pharmacists don’t just dispense drugs to patients, they also partner with patients to improve their health as well.”

Another role that pharmacists are playing at independent drugstores and some national chains like Walgreens and the Medicine Shoppe and even supermarkets like Kroger, is “by working with doctors and nurses to care for people with long-term illnesses.”

Pharmacists are also “being enlisted by some health insurers and large employers to help address the fact that “as many as half of the nation’s patients do not take their medications as prescribed, which ends up costing nearly $300 billion a year in emergency room visits, hospital stays and other medical expenditures.”

In their unique role, pharmacists also maintain the “front line of detecting prescription overlap or dangerous interaction between drugs and for recommending cheaper options to expensive medicines.

As a result of the numerous responsibilities pharmacists already carry out, pilot programs, such as the one started by Dr. Andrew Halpert, senior medical director for Blue Shield of California, are attempting to show that pharmacists “could do as well and better than a physician” for less money. Specifically, the program seeks to address the shortage of primary care doctors by using the education, expertise, free time and plain-spoken approach pharmacists use to talk to patients at length about what medicines they are taking and to keep close tabs on their well-being as a way.

This kind of approach has already been taken by “some health insurers and large employers who pay for programs called medication therapy management, which typically involve face-to-face sessions between pharmacists and patients in retail stores or clinics.” Programs such as these pay pharmacists to track patients, monitor cholesterol or blood glucose levels, or prod customers to change their diets or exercise.

Since 2006, some “Medicare plans started covering medication therapy management programs, paying $1 to $2 a minute to pharmacists to review patients’ medicines with them, and in 2010, about one in four people covered by Medicare Part D prescription drug plans will be eligible.”

Pharmacists are also advising patients about medication through grants and such as the Wisconsin Pharmacy Quality Collaborative, which standardizes medication therapy management and ensures quality care. Similarly, Humana, which has offered pharmacists medication advising for a few years, is studying a third of 62,000 pharmacies in its network to see “whether a pharmacist seeing a patient in person has more impact than a phone call.”

According to the Times, the result of these new services “has spawned a new industry of medication therapy management companies to run clinical pharmacy programs for health insurers, contracting with pharmacists and tracking the financial and health outcomes of their services.” And results so far have been positive. For example one recent studyfinanced by GlaxoSmithKline, tracked 573 people with diabetes (30 employers in 10 cities) who took part in at least two sessions with pharmacists who helped them track their blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels and offered diet and exercise advice. The results of the study showed that after a year, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels typically improved — and saved an average $593 a person on diabetes drugs and supplies.

While some groups may be concerned about the proper role pharmacists should play, as Michelle A. Chui, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy pointed out, “pharmacists do not want to compete with doctors, they merely want to provide more information “so the physician has a more in-depth picture.”

Consequently, pharmacists who provide more education and information to share with health care providers and patients should be encouraged because it gives patients a better chance to understand and follow medication directions in a consistent manner. As a result, using education companies which teaches other pharmacies how to introduce in-store services, should also be encouraged because as the owner of Barney’s Pharmacy noted, when pharmacists “get involved with chronic care patients, their outcomes improve.”

Accordingly, with 31 million more patients entering the health care system through government programs, and with populations getting older and living longer, the number of prescriptions will grow exponentially. Not only will we need companies and funding to create and discover the drugs to provide to this influx of people, we will also need pharmacists to help fill prescriptions. Allowing our pharmacists to continue their role in educating patients will help ensure that patients follow their medical therapy and management, which will save lives and money.

Thomas Sullivan is founder of Rockpointe and blogs at Policy and Medicine.

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