The past two years have revealed just how vital pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are to our healthcare system. Pharmacist staff burnout has made headlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a nationwide staff shortage. Beginning in late 2021, many retailers implemented measures to recruit and retain pharmacy staff, including aggressive hiring campaigns and offering competitive wages. The need for qualified pharmacist staff in the community pharmacy setting has never been more critical as we continue to experience the aftereffects of the pandemic―from the need to administer more vaccines to the need to fill prescriptions for mental and behavioral health.
But I would argue that this is a reckoning well overdue. For years, community pharmacists have not been valued for their contributions to the healthcare ecosystem. Neither pharmacists nor pharmacy technicians have been given a seat at the table to coordinate care with a patient’s care team. Pharmacists have not been able to operate at the top of their license and pharmacy technicians have not been utilized effectively for patient care needs.
Because today’s healthcare system is disjointed and focuses primarily on a dominant health condition, a patient is forced to act as their own healthcare coordinator. Even if a patient has a primary care provider (PCP), the burden is on the patient to manage their care and drug utilization. Pharmacists, however, are uniquely positioned to view and assess drug utilization prescribed by various healthcare providers for a single patient. The pharmacist is frequently the only professional that sees the patient’s entire list of medications and understands the implications. Leveraging their unique skillset and training, pharmacists can help patients avoid adverse drug events, improve the quality of prescribing and medication appropriateness as well as improve the management of chronic conditions. Advocating for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to be more involved in patient care teams is a significant way to improve patient health.
For too long retail pharmacists have been relegated to the sidelines to count pills and staple labels to bags. While most pharmacists now have a doctorate degree, they have essentially become glorified cashiers. As well, pharmacy technicians are typically assigned general back office functions, including inventory management, pill counting, and data entry despite their certification. A 2022 Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) workplace survey found that more than half of pharmacy technicians chose their profession because they wanted to work in healthcare, suggesting that the industry can seek additional ways to retain talent, including evolving the role to assume more patient-centered responsibility. Approximately 83% of respondents in this study acknowledged more workplace stress during the pandemic, but they also reported their roles took on greater meaning. Ahead of the vaccine rollout, pharmacy technicians were authorized and trained to administer COVID tests and vaccines, placing them squarely on the front lines of clinical patient care.
High-quality healthcare is unequivocally a team sport. Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians can contribute more and should be given the opportunity to operate at the top of their license or certification. Pharmacies as front-line healthcare providers are heavy transaction-oriented environments with high patient engagement rates. Patient accessibility allows pharmacists to develop trusted relationships with their patients and can supplement or extend the services of primary care providers in chronic condition management, prevention, and wellness, treating minor acute illnesses, and supporting mental health and aging in place. Pharmacy technicians can alleviate burdens on their supervising pharmacists and help drive white glove management for patients who need the greatest attention and care. Underserved patients exist within every community and are underserved for a reason―these patients are at higher clinical risk and have complex care needs and thus, require a higher quality of care and service that they rarely experience. As care navigators, pharmacy technicians can advocate for patient needs, coordinating between pharmacy and physician care to ensure all of their healthcare needs are appropriately met. In the most effective scenario, pharmacy technicians can provide a high-touch concierge service model that can truly make a difference by supporting both the patients and the pharmacists in the healthcare journey as part of a patient care team.
With the right model, clinical knowledge, and bedside manner, an initiative like this that is implemented strategically can help close gaps in care and improve health outcomes for those who need it most. If we give pharmacists and pharmacy technicians the opportunity to do the job they were trained to, we will see better overall health outcomes.
When I am asked, “where have all the pharmacists gone?,” I have one answer. Pharmacists have shifted away from the retail setting to find roles in new settings such as long-term care, consulting, and medication therapy management companies where they are respected and recognized for their clinical knowledge, technical abilities, and commitment to patient health and safety. Pharmacists in managed healthcare organizations play an important role in the healthcare ecosystem, providing prescription drug benefits to more than 300 million Americans. The deployment of pharmacy technicians on the frontlines of COVID-19 care proved successful, resulting in improved pharmacy workloads and broader clinical skill deployment by pharmacists―and proving that there is a need and a place for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians on patient care teams.
As the CEO of a pharmacy benefits manager (PBM), 27% of my workforce ranges from Pharm Ds to pharmacy technicians who serve our members with the highest level of care while also curbing costs. As one of the PharmDs on my staff said recently, “I love being in a role that allows me to be an expert for my patients.” Recognizing that a small percentage of our membership has healthcare complexities, we leverage a complex care management model to specifically identify and address their needs. Our pharmacy technicians are deployed as clinical concierges dedicated to helping these patients navigate their pharmacy benefits and coordinating across doctor’s offices and pharmacies on their behalf. A consistent, compassionate care delivery model that results in an improved care experience, reduced gaps in care, and a better quality of life.
As we continue to navigate the challenges facing our healthcare system today, I hope that pharmacy staff will be given the credit they deserve and the opportunity to do what they do best, provide clinically appropriate and value-based care.