We’re dealing with a healthcare provider shortage. Here’s how pharmacists can help fill the gap

There are several reasons we’re dealing with a provider shortage today – retirement, COVID-related burnout, doctors forgoing lower-paying specialties for more lucrative options. And the providers who are still working? They’re helping a generation now booming into the age when they require more complex, specialized care.

Unresolved, this shortage could have long-lasting public health consequences.

The good news: we don’t necessarily need to replace every physician we’re losing one to one. By better coordinating with pharmacists, physicians can deliver excellent care to their patients even as acuity rises. Here are three ways pharmacists can help physicians deliver top-quality care.

#1: Pharmacists support preventive care

Patients with type 2 diabetes – nearly 10 percent of the US – have an increased risk of comorbidities including heart failure and kidney disease.

Pharmacists are in a unique position to support preventive care and medication management that can improve patients’ long-term health.

And that management can lead to improved patient-centered outcomes, including…

  • Better medication adherence.
  • Fewer hospitalizations.
  • Higher quality of life.
  • Decreased costs.

By working with patients to manage their care, pharmacists can lessen the burden of care for overworked doctors. And when embedded in value-based care teams, they can communicate with physicians to help refine future plans of care that their patients are more likely to follow. 

How does that work? Say a patient needs their insulin dosage increased over several months. While consulting a patient during their uptitration, a pharmacist can lower the patient’s dosage immediately after recognizing adverse effects – such as weight gain or constipation.

Alternatively, a patient may mention to their pharmacist the difficulties they’re having injecting insulin at home. In this case, the pharmacist can work with the patient’s healthcare team to determine whether to use alternative therapies like Metformin.

Better communication leads to better adherence and increased efficacy – and the more effective a patient’s treatment, the more they’re likely to trust their providers and follow their guidance, lessening the likelihood of emergencies and keeping them out of the hospital.

#2: Pharmacists help prescribe medications 

Pharmacists can do more than help patients manage medications. States across the US are beginning to recognize the value of authorizing pharmacists to prescribe the medications they manage.

Under the guidance of statewide protocols or standing orders, pharmacists can prescribe medications that don’t require a diagnosis for prescription. What’s more: this authority doesn’t require physician supervision.

This means pharmacists can take on prescriptive authority without adding another administrative step for an already busy healthcare team. This streamlines not only how the team works together, but how the patient receives their care.

Say a patient needs to refill a prescription. With prescriptive authority, a pharmacist can authorize that refill without an additional PCP appointment.

Pharmacists can also help patients by prescribing and filling preventive prescriptions that don’t require an exam. When pharmacists prescribe birth control, for example, they can reach patients who haven’t previously had access to hormonal contraceptives.

As the prescribing authority and an expert in medication management, pharmacists can proactively help patients avoid adverse side effects such as antibiotics lowering the efficacy of birth control pills.

By removing barriers to healthcare access, pharmacists save patients time and money while helping them maintain – and improve – their health.

#3: Pharmacists promote public health

Promoting public health programs – like those focused on vaccine protocols and diabetes prevention – is complex. And when the effects of a program are difficult to understand or the program itself is difficult to take part in, some patients will decline to participate.

That’s bad – both for the individual patient’s health and for the public health of the community they live in.

Take vaccinations, for example. Even when people avoid the world of vaccine misinformation, many won’t go out of their way to get a needle stuck in their arm. Enter pharmacists.

A pharmacist’s ability to quickly provide vaccinations – often without an appointment – breaks down barriers between patients and their healthcare.

As of today, 49 states allow pharmacists to administer any type of vaccine. The easier it is to get vaccines, the more likely patients are to seek them out. And this is as true for yearly vaccines – such as those for the flu – as it is for vaccinations such as the MMR vaccine or emergency deliveries such as the first COVID-19 vaccines.

But it’s not just a matter of access. It’s about cost savings, too.

Preventive health programs such as the COVID-19 and yearly influenza vaccines are often provided free to patients. But other public health initiatives – including those focused on fighting diseases like diabetes – are costly.

For patients wondering how to manage the cost of their medications, pharmacists can be lifesavers. They know, for example, that some prescription drug plans don’t count generic medication toward a patient’s deductible.

The result? What seems like a cost-saving option actually winds up costing the patient more money over the course of the year.

Pharmacists can help this patient manage costs by suggesting they switch to a name brand drug.

Pharmacists extend the reach of value-based healthcare teams

The US may face a shortage of more than 100,000 physicians within the next 12 years. And if action isn’t taken soon, every state in the country will have a physician shortage by 2030.

Healthcare teams with embedded pharmacists will be best positioned to deliver robust care to patients even in the midst of a provider shortage, streamlining communication, easing the burden of medication management, and helping to reduce hospitalization and readmission.

Interested in helping your team expand its reach? Get in touch.

Kristen Engelen, PharmD
Kristen Engelen, PharmD, is the chief pharmacy officer of RxLive and a certified consultant pharmacist; she has over a decade of experience in retail pharmacy settings. Kristen became an RxLive co-founder because of her passion for geriatric pharmacy, with a focus on the intersection of pharmacy and aging.