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The Future Pharmacy Is Powered by Data

Pharmacies and pharmacists have played an unprecedented role in two of the great crises of the 21st Century: the opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. Necessity breeds innovation, and pharmacies, which often are open 24/7, operate in local communities (the vast majority of people in the US live within five miles of their nearest pharmacy). As of August 2022, pharmacies have delivered 263.3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines and received regulatory permission to dispense Narcan (in the context of the opioid epidemic) and Paxlovid (in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic), proving their effectiveness in immediate patient care. 

Pharmacists have closer relationships with the patient than most providers and are well-positioned to play an expanded role in medication reconciliation, adherence programs, and even prescribing medicine. To help fuel this shift, real-time data and artificial intelligence (AI) can empower pharmacists to operate at the top of their licenses and deliver better patient outcomes.

Patients (Customers) Have Higher Expectations than Ever

When patients take more control over their health and become consumers in the healthcare market, customer demand for improved healthcare access and convenience are non-negotiable. To this end, pharmacies must have the tools and technologies required to meet customers where they are at the right time. Understanding data and how it can help them stay ahead of continually evolving trends, and expectations will also be pivotal in the patient/pharmacist relationship.  

Pharmacies Play a Pivotal Role in Their Local Communities

With most Americans living within just a 5-mile span of their local pharmacy, it makes sense that these venues would become the go-to option for a broad range of health needs. Healthcare systems are not always an immediate or easy option for patients, especially for those residing in more rural areas. Additionally, the frequency at which patients visit pharmacies (typically monthly) is much greater than other healthcare services like physician wellness exams, making monitoring and treating chronic conditions easier. 

Many pharmacies already provide on-site urgent care and vaccination options and will continue expanding their services to offer preventative care options. These easily accessible services help customers achieve the convenience they desire (especially when their general practitioners may require commuting long distances and may have scheduling issues). Pharmacists have a unique opportunity to build trust and serve their local communities.

When it comes to embracing the future of pharmaceuticals in action, companies like Walgreens are a great example. They aimed to revamp its customer experience (CX) while significantly improving the employee experience for its pharmacists. With its pharmacy comprising 70% of the business, Walgreens needed a way to empower its pharmacists and help them better serve patients, freeing up time spent on administrative tasks. The company achieved this by implementing an intelligent data platform that can forecast demand and redistribute medications across its entire network of pharmacies. Becoming a data-driven organization has not only saved Walgreens millions of dollars, but it is also continually improving – and in some cases – saving the lives of its customers with real-time insights and personalized recommendations.

The Role of the Pharmacist Is Evolving

Advances in technology will also help generate awareness around the modern role of today’s pharmacist. Many pharmacists already go above and beyond what was once viewed as the traditional role. In fact, more than half of today’s pharmacists are licensed to prescribe medication and help manage chronic diseases. Recent research from Deloitte notes that 53% of US-licensed pharmacists are doctors of pharmacy who receive as much classroom clinical instruction as medical doctors. 

Furthermore, there are currently more pharmacists than primary care physicians (PCPs) nationwide. In 2019, there were around 228,000 PCPs, while there were 315,470 pharmacists in 2020, per the Mercatus Center, George Mason University. A recent article from the institution notes, “Pharmacists tend to have more touch points with patients than physicians. For instance, Medicare beneficiaries visit a community pharmacist almost twice as often as they do a PCP, and these differences are larger in rural areas. Thus, many patients have more experience and perhaps greater comfort dealing with their pharmacist than they do with their own physician.”

It’s also important to note that the gap between pharmacists and doctors is much smaller in Europe. According to the European Statements of Hospital Pharmacy, “The overarching goal of the hospital pharmacy service is to optimize patient outcomes through working collaboratively within multidisciplinary teams in order to achieve the responsible use of medicines across all settings.” Hospital pharmacists are able to identify high-risk medicines and oversee procedures “prescribing, preparing, dispensing, administration and monitoring processes.” It makes sense to allow pharmacists greater access to patient care in order to improve accessibility, and Europe is paving the way to increase trust and improve relationships. 

Takeaway: Data and AI Can Empower Pharmacists  

As data and AI take on a more pivotal role in healthcare, pharmacists will be equipped and empowered with the insights needed to assist in areas like medication reconciliation and adherence programs. These tools will help reshape the role of the retail pharmacist by expanding capabilities and responsibilities and generating awareness of what’s already possible.

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