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How the Pandemic Changed Community Pharmacy

In this invited guest essay Lindsay Dymowski, President of Centennial Pharmacy Services, gives us her perspectives on the key role community pharmacies played during the height of COVID-19, the key role they continue to play in community health, and the challenges facing community pharmacy.

Although President Biden officially declared an end to the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, the pandemic is not just recent history. It left an indelible mark on workplaces in every industry.

I, myself, saw firsthand the massive transformation that the pandemic brought to community pharmacies. While many of the changes were for the best, some have created challenges we are still dealing with today.

How the response of community pharmacies drove lasting change

The lockdowns brought about by Covid took the world by surprise. Our first concern in community pharmacies was to get medication and prescriptions safely to our patients.

In a matter of mere days, the pharmacy community responded by implementing procedural and logistical changes to provide safe and reliable access including delivery services, curbside pickup, virtual queues, and mobile availability. Our industry transformed overnight, but we soon discovered this was just the beginning.

As the pandemic continued for months, with seemingly no end in sight, a greater transformation occurred — a monumental shift in how people view community pharmacies' role. Before Covid, people thought of pharmacies as a place to pick up medication along with candy, make-up, and a host of other front-end merchandise. After Covid, however, the healthcare system leaned on pharmacies to offer the full scope of our medical expertise and services.

Fear of infection caused tens of thousands of patients to avoid hospitals and doctors' offices. Thanks to the contactless medication pickup options we provided, they continued to come to us, and they found trained clinicians waiting when they did.

As a result, more healthcare providers realized we had reliable access to their patients, so they asked us to step in and bridge the gap. For years, we had offered to provide health care and support physicians in a greater role, but it was only during the pandemic that healthcare providers saw this need fully exemplified.

Community pharmacies brainstormed how we could best serve patients with our access, skills, and expertise. We were on the front lines in opening point-of-care testing sites, establishing parking lot drive-throughs and refurbishing storefronts to accommodate Covid testing. Many of these sites still operate today by providing point-of-care testing, administering vaccinations, and providing wellness services.

No other space in healthcare was better equipped to support the Covid vaccine rollout than community pharmacies. We boosted staffing, vaccinated hundreds of patients each day, and reported data overnight. As of November 2022, the CDC reveals that community pharmacies have administered over 291 million Covid vaccinations through federal programs, though this number does not account for vaccinations administered under state programs.

During the pandemic, community pharmacies — and those who operate them — proved their value within the healthcare system. Since then, we have had the opportunity to practice in a more clinical scope. For example, we can now offer access to testing and disease state management programs. We collaborate with physicians as leading members of our patient care teams, and patients come to us with questions about their medications.

Lasting change brings lasting challenges for community pharmacies

Community pharmacies acquired a weightier role in the wake of the pandemic, but we have not received practical recognition and reimbursement for our expanded services. To illustrate this, let's look at how we are compensated as we administer Paxlovid, the COVID-19 antiviral.

We have obtained the authority to prescribe and dispense this medication, which entails various crucial responsibilities. We need at least 15 minutes for a screening process to ensure the prescription is appropriate, 10 minutes to access health records, 10 minutes for entering data and filling the prescription, and at least five minutes to advise our patient about how to take the medication. That process adds up to a minimum of 40 minutes, but the Wall Street Journal says that we receive, on average, less than $10 for each prescription we fill.

The health care system finally acknowledges community pharmacists as clinical experts who are able to take on leading roles in supporting patients and providers. We have demonstrated our worth; now, we must procure a future for our practice that is sustainable and equitable.

Community pharmacies should be paid in a way that demonstrates value for our time and expertise. We should be reimbursed in a way that allows us to cover our costs. As we progress in supporting patient goals and collaborating with care teams, we must push for compensation that acknowledges our expertise and contribution to the quality of patient care.

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