How Technology Is Changing Pharmacies For The Better

Aysha Ahmed, PharmD, is Chief Medical Director, President & cofounder of Vasa HealthIV™.

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From the outside looking in, most people assume that a pharmacist’s only job is to correctly dispense medication prescribed by a medical practitioner. While this is certainly a critical part of what happens in a pharmacy, it is far from being the only role pharmacists play in the healthcare ecosystem.

In fact, pharmacists play a critical role in ensuring that all patients can access their medications and that they adhere to the correct usage guidelines. Technology innovations in the healthcare and pharmaceutical spaces are not only further elevating the role of pharmacists in these areas but also empowering us to support patients and medical providers in new ways that help promote health and save lives.

Technology Improves Medication Adherence, Resulting In Lives Saved

Medication adherence is often measured in two primary ways: by the number of people who pick up their medications from the pharmacy and the number of people who take their medications as prescribed. In 2017, the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science found, unsurprisingly, that cost was the biggest determining factor in whether patients picked up or abandoned their medications at the pharmacy.

Out-of-pocket costs for all types of medications skyrocketed from $1 billion to $77 billion in 2020, with $24.5 billion of that going to generic prescription medications and coming from the pockets of the uninsured. What’s more, of the roughly 6.3 billion prescriptions IQVIA says are written each year to patients in the U.S., about 3.3% are never picked up. That’s 207.9 million prescriptions not being picked up or taken. And even among those that are picked up, one-third of patients will probably stop taking them without talking to their doctor. Combined, all types of medication nonadherence contribute to at least 125,000 deaths that potentially could have been prevented and $500 billion in otherwise avoidable healthcare costs.

As insurmountable as this problem seems, technology has the power to help. At-home medication dispensers provide pharmacists with the ability to track whether patients are actually taking their prescription medication. What’s more, that tracking happens in real time. Although still in their infancy, having only come into broad availability within the past two to three years, some of these dispensers also have medication reminders built in.

Digital systems that allow, encourage and empower patients are being developed so that people can be more involved in their own healthcare—from improved access to medical records and test results to better tracking and management of medications. The types “digiceutical” platforms are gaining ground in both pharmacies and medical facilities because they not only increase access but also help to modify patient behaviors when it comes to being actively involved in their own care.

Following the growing trend of telehealth, even home-based infusion therapies are becoming an option. I see technology and the growing networks it creates as having the potential to help pharmacists, insurance companies and medical providers work together to find affordable medication alternatives to lower costs, heighten collaboration and increase patient adherence to medication and other instructions.

How Technology Is Improving Patient Access Medications And Care

While cost is likely to remain the number one determining factor in medication adherence for the long haul, other access challenges are not far behind. The same IQVIA report from earlier shows that more than a quarter of those prescriptions left behind are abandoned for access reasons surrounding prior authorization denials, issues between generics and brand name medications, clerical errors, missing medical documentation and other administrative concerns that create barriers for patients and consume the time of pharmacists—time that should be spent assisting patients in other ways.

One of the most critical, yet severely overlooked, roles of pharmacists in their communities is their role as patient counselors and advocates, which includes their responsibility to review medical therapies. As it is, most pharmacies have been reduced to asking customers on a digital screen whether or not they have questions for the pharmacist, and most patients don’t ask. Moreover, around a quarter of patients may not have the opportunity to ask questions at all, since an estimated 12% of patients receive their prescriptions via mail delivery and an estimated 13% receive home delivery from a pharmacy.

Platforms that collect and connect medical and pharmaceutical information for patients have the opportunity to reduce administrative and clerical errors, reduce wait times, alleviate preauthorization issues and ultimately give pharmacists back the critical time needed to work directly with and on behalf of patients.

How Pharmacists And Medical Providers Can Improve Digiceutical Practices

I believe that improving patients’ lives starts by improving their access and adherence to prescription medication. Right now, the easiest and most effective way to achieve results is by adopting and leveraging new and available technologies that improve the continuum of care and collaboration between patients, medical providers, pharmacists and insurance companies.

What’s more, empowering pharmacists with the time and resources to educate and counsel patients, and empowering patients to effectively manage their medications right from home or from their phones will inevitably create pathways that enhance positive health outcomes now and in the decades to come.

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