Pharmacists are arguing they should play a more active role in care teams by being allowed to practice the full scope of their license, according to comments at the HIMSS conference in Chicago.
Nearly half of U.S. counties have shortages of primary care providers, with just one of those doctors for every 1,500 people, while 61% of those counties have a high volume of retail pharmacy locations that could help make up the deficit, according to new data from health IT network Surescripts.
But pharmacists at HIMSS say they need access to a greater range of medical data to get there.
“We’re not trying to do complex care services, we’re trying to be a complement to primary care,” said Anita Patel, VP of pharmacy services development at Walgreens, on a Tuesday panel. “How simple can we make it so that we’re really thinking about what do you need in order to do your job?”
Many physicians, including those in primary care, are facing burnout and considering leaving the industry. By 2034, the U.S. could face a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Meanwhile, nine in 10 Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy, and research suggests that pharmacies are patients’ most frequent and trusted touchpoint with the healthcare industry. Pandemic-era flexibilities allowed pharmacists to do more to expand access to primary care, as they took a more active role in testing and vaccinations, said Kevin Nicholson, VP of policy at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
The HHS recently said it plans to extend those privileges, allowing pharmacists, pharmacy interns and pharmacy technicians to administer COVID-19 tests and vaccines, along with seasonable flu vaccines, through December 2024. Pharmacists are allowed to administer some vaccines currently, but specific allowances vary state by state.
But speakers at the Tuesday panel said that state and federal regulators need to do more to allow pharmacists to permanently practice at the top of their licenses, such as expanding scope of practice laws.
Eric Weidmann, CMO of medical software Aprima, said he has “enthusiastic trepidation” about the prospect of pharmacists getting more involved in primary care. Weidmann said he was concerned that pharmacists might step in to address more low-acuity cases that then become more complex than initially expected.
There are “thorny exceptions” to practicing at the top of one’s license, Weidmann said, though he noted he’s excited about the prospect for better team management.
The panelists said it’s critical that pharmacists be able to interface more fully with medical records maintained by doctor’s offices and hospitals, though that can be complicated by clashing standards between pharmacies’ and providers’ digital systems.
Pharmacists said they don’t need a colossal range of patient data, but do need more than just an accurate medication list to be able to meet a wider subset of patient needs.
For a patient with uncontrolled diabetes who doesn’t have time to regularly see their primary care physician, pharmacists could take their A1C level, walk them through nutrition counseling, check to see if they need an eye or foot exam, or do a blood test if they have hypertension, and share that information with their physician to ensure care coordination, Patel said.
“It’s not boiling the ocean. It’s a discrete dataset to fulfill the functions we’re talking about,” said Frank Harvey, CEO of Surescripts.