New Study Shows Pharmacists Taking on Expanded Role in Patient Care

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By Susan Peppers, RPh, Chief Pharmacist, Express Scripts® Pharmacy and John McHugh, MBA, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

At the same time as the number of Americans age 65 and older is rapidly increasing, the nation’s shortage of doctors is expected to rise between 54,000 and 139,000 by 2033, according to a Commonwealth Fund data brief of January 2020. In addition, we know the country is experiencing a critical nursing shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to continue through 2030. 

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One underutilized resource that can help to ensure access to quality health care is our nation’s pharmacists.

Pharmacists are a trusted part of patient’s health care teams today and can continue to be an accessible health care provider in both in-person and virtual settings in the future. A recent study shows that pharmacists are taking on an expanded role in patient care, with the ability to help attain cost and quality goals, as well as assist with chronic disease management. 

Together, our organizations, Express Scripts® Pharmacy and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, partnered on new research to more deeply understand the expanding role of pharmacists in transforming patient care in the decade ahead. Between November and December 2021, we surveyed more than 3,000 patients, 1,000 pharmacists, and 500 providers (including physicians and nurse practitioners). The resulting Prescription of Trust report is the largest and most comprehensive research study ever conducted on this topic. 

Health Care Providers Recognize Pharmacists Play a Key Role

Our research tells us that health care providers expect pharmacists to play a greater role in traditional primary care activities. For example, 63.4% of provider respondents agree or strongly agree that pharmacists will play a greater role in preventive care activities, and 51.1% agree or strongly agree pharmacists will have greater specialization in specific diseases. In addition, the research found 72% of doctors and nurse practitioners already consider pharmacists to be part of the patient care team.

Here’s what one internal medicine physician shared in the survey: “With health care provider shortages, alternative health care professionals will have to take a more active role.” 

In the next decade, we will see more pharmacists proactively counseling patients on their medications and becoming the first stop for patients with questions about their care. The research found that pharmacists in ambulatory clinics, health systems (hospitals), and home delivery pharmacies already often serve as specialists, advising patients with specific diseases or interacting with a larger health team to manage complex care. 

Patients Trust Pharmacists

A key finding of our research shows that pharmacists are trusted by a majority of people to play a greater role in providing the care they need. Nearly 80% of patients said they already see pharmacists as an integral part of their health care team. Patients also have a relatively high level of comfort with pharmacists performing clinical activities. Our research shows that 76.2% of respondents would be extremely to very comfortable with pharmacists checking vitals and 54.9% of respondents indicating they would be extremely or very comfortable with pharmacists diagnosing acute conditions. Even more, 58.1% indicated they would be comfortable with pharmacists prescribing medications for acute conditions. 

Health care providers, as well, reported a high level of trust, often exceeding 90%, in pharmacists’ current professional activities, including dispensing medications, communicating with health professionals and patients about potential adverse drug interactions, counseling patients on their medications, and administering vaccines.  Notably, providers who currently collaborate with pharmacists have greater trust in pharmacists providing direct to patient care and prescribing medications.

Advanced Technology Solutions Help Enable Patient Care

The COVID pandemic has spotlighted pharmacists’ accessibility, which will become increasingly important. Estimates predict that by 2025, 164 million Americans will have a chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, amounting to $4 trillion in health care costs. Pharmacists can continue to expand their role in helping to manage care and costs, fill gaps in care, manage complex medication therapies, and help to improve the continuity of care across health care settings.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of telehealth skyrocketed, but the use of telepharmacy has not been as quickly adopted. However, our study showed that nearly half (49.7%) of patients would find it extremely or very helpful to have routine testing and medical visits done from home. Telepharmacy is an underutilized resource for people to connect with a pharmacist anytime, anywhere. At many home delivery pharmacies, such as Express Scripts® Pharmacy, their members can access pharmacists by phone 24/7. 

Other supportive technologies have the ability to have an impact on the pharmacy of the future, including the safety of patients. We learned that 70.8% of pharmacists agree or strongly agree that automation will lead to reductions in human error and 86.1% agree or strongly agree that technology advances will make the practice of pharmacy safer for patients. 

In addition, pharmacists agree that use of technology allows more time for patient care. In fact, more than a third (35.2%) of pharmacists who use telehealth technology indicated it allows more time to interact with their patients. While 68.5% of pharmacists that utilize barcode technology feel that it will result in more time to spend addressing patients’ needs and 83.9% note that it makes their work more efficient.

Pharmacists Are at the Center of Patient Care

As the shortage of doctors and nurses persists in the U.S., and complex new therapies and digital health care technology solutions are developed, pharmacists recognize the unique role they have in patient care. Our Prescription of Trust report shows they are embracing their growing responsibilities with 70.1% saying they are excited about the evolving role of the pharmacist. 

To learn more about The Prescription of Trust report, please follow this link: www.express-scripts.com/futureofcare.

Susan Peppers, RPh, Chief Pharmacist, Express Scripts® Pharmacy, is dedicated to quality and patient safety with responsibility for Pharmacy Practice, Patient Consultation, and Clinical Programs. 

John McHugh, MBA, PhDis an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. His research focuses on health care organizations and how they operate and respond to changing incentives.

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