May 23

Pharmacists: An Answer to the Health Access Problem … and More

by Wayne Oliver, Vice President, Center for Health Transformation
Originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on May 2, 2012

Improved access to healthcare was one of the main selling points of federal health reform. ObamaCare places a great deal of importance on expanding coverage with a special focus on advancing health wellness, preventative services and primary care.

However, there is an underutilized healthcare resource which is available to everyone … now.

That underutilized and often untapped healthcare resource is your community pharmacist. In Georgia and most other states, pharmacists are the most accessible healthcare professional.

From Dade County in the mountains of northwest Georgia to Camden County on the Georgia coast and from Maine to California, pharmacists are an untapped resource.  Unlike physicians and hospitals which are usually located in more populated cities, community pharmacists are located in virtually every one of Georgia’s 159 counties and in most small communities throughout the US.

And, pharmacists are very knowledgeable healthcare professionals. After college, pharmacists must successfully complete an additional four-year pharmacy school educational track, which includes an entire year which is solely dedicated to clinical field work.

Many pharmacists are experts in prevention and wellness services including providing influenza and pneumonia immunizations. Others focus on helping patients manage their chronic illnesses like diabetes or hypertension (high blood pressure).  All are authorities on prescription medications and how drugs can help patients get better faster.

There are numeroous studies pointing to how pharmacists are making a difference in the lives of patients.

The US Surgeon General recently released a report which demonstrated the value of pharmacist-directed healthcare services. The report suggests that the healthcare system should advance innovative care models where “pharmacists can ultimately help alleviate demands on the healthcare system (including) access, safety, quality, cost, and provider shortages,” as well as “improve outcomes.” The report describes existing, accepted, and successful models of healthcare delivery and patient care using pharmacists as healthcare providers and essential members of the healthcare team.

Since physicians usually prescribe medications to treat diseases or disorders, patients often already have a relationship with a pharmacy and a pharmacist. The New England Healthcare Institute (NEHI) has studied the problem when patients do not properly take their medications. The NEHI has determined that poor medication adherence costs the healthcare system more than $290 billion annually.

Pharmacists can also help patients and their caregivers navigate the complex healthcare system. Pharmacists — particularly those in community pharmacies — can assist patients in selecting the best over-the-counter products, discuss prescription drug therapy and the side effects of medications or, when the situation warrants, urge patients to see their primary care physician.

The American healthcare system is undergoing tremendous change. We are moving away from a transactionally-based system that incentivizes healthcare providers to bill for individual services (physician office visits, diagnostic tests and prescription drugs) and toward a system which rewards collaboration and focuses on health outcomes.

But until we fully transform the healthcare system, pharmacists represent not only a valued member of the healthcare team but an untapped resource which is available and accessible in most communities.

So, regardless of what the Supreme Court decides to do with ObamaCare, patients, families and caregivers need only to look to the local community pharmacy for a highly educated, highly trained, very accessible healthcare provider.

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