It’s never been easier to fill a prescription: You can get medications through any number of online pharmacies and telemedicine sites. And discount cards and coupons are easy to find.
But what you don’t typically get with those services is access to a local pharmacist. While that may not seem like a big deal when you just want to get your prescription filled or refilled, you may be missing out on guidance and support that a pharmacist could provide.
That support was critical for Jill Taylor, 55, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, founder and full-time homesteader at Happy Farmyard, an online resource for raising farm animals.
In 2015, Taylor was diagnosed with pericardial effusion, a chronic heart condition that occurs when there’s too much fluid around your heart. She worried that taking the medications her doctor had prescribed to treat it would be overwhelming. Taylor said her doctor didn’t have time to answer all her questions.
“That’s when my pharmacist stepped in,” she said. “The pharmacist explained that he wasn’t just there to fill prescriptions, he was also an expert on my overall health journey.”
Taylor said the pharmacist took time to go through each of her medications, encouraged her to ask questions, explained how her medications worked and guided her through how to take them properly. He also prepared her for specific side effects and checked for potentially dangerous interactions between her medications.
The pharmacist also helped set Taylor’s expectations for the recovery process, made sure she had a support system in place to help her manage her medications and gave her resources to help her make informed decisions about her care. He also checked on her repeatedly to make sure she was okay.
“Overall, having a pharmacist on my team gave me the confidence to keep up with my treatment plans and feel like I was truly taking control of my health journey,” she said. “That’s something no prescription can buy.”
Pharmacists as healthcare providers (HCPs)
Taylor is not alone in turning to a pharmacist for clinical support. A 2022 study found that patients visit their community pharmacy nearly twice as often as they see their doctor or other qualified HCP. In the study, patients who used the most pharmacy services were more likely to be female — more than half of the most frequent pharmacy users were women — with an average age around 50.
In many states, pharmacists are starting to be recognized as HCPs. For example, Massachusetts enacted a law in 2021 that recognizes pharmacists as HCPs who can be integrated into care teams and potentially reimbursed by insurance for their services. Along those same lines, Nevada passed a law that removes certain limitations on pharmacists, and makes it easier for pharmacists to help patients and practice collaboratively with HCPs.
These changes reflect a growing recognition that pharmacists can be an important part of a patient’s care team. While pharmacists aren’t there to make diagnoses or dispense medical advice, they can provide guidance about which over-the-counter medications to take and how to take medication properly and safely, and they can educate people about medication risks, such as potentially dangerous interactions.
They can also help make sure patients know how to take their medications properly. In some states, pharmacists can provide patients with more complex treatments, such as hormonal contraceptives and HIV medications. In addition, pharmacists can help patients determine when they really need to see a HCP for a more serious condition.
The evolution of pharmacists
La Vonia Cannon, MBA, BS Pharm, a pharmacist, said she’s seen the pharmacy profession change over the past two decades.
“We believe the pharmacy — often the first stop and last mile in healthcare delivery — can be even more instrumental in helping to solve the challenges facing our healthcare system and patients today,” she said.
According to Cannon, pharmacies now provide testing and immunizations, and help people manage chronic diseases, freeing up HCPs to consult with patients who need the most support.
Cannon said that pharmacies are now partnering with primary care providers to help coordinate patient care. They’re also offering “test and treat” services where the pharmacist can perform certain tests and provide appropriate medications, such as providing an antiviral after a positive Covid-19 test.
“I am proud to witness pharmacists playing a greater role in healthcare than ever before,” she said. “Within the last few years, the value of pharmacists as trusted health resources embedded in the communities they serve has become more evident.”
Pharmacists are more than medicine dispensers
Danielle Plummer, Pharm.D, based in Las Vegas, uses her training to do a lot more than simply dispense medicine. She works as a hospital pharmacist and a consulting pharmacist, educating healthcare providers and advocating for patients with hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition that causes extreme nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.
“Pharmacists are stepping away from dispensing roles for a variety of reasons including technology and an emphasis on vaccines and other disease state education,” Plummer said.
She said that many pharmacists are now trained, certified and viewed as part of clinical care teams in hospitals, clinics and long-term care settings. The role of pharmacists is expanding, with jobs for pharmacists at insurance companies, drug and diagnostic manufacturers, and in the public health sector and at startups, among others.
“I believe that in the near future, pharmacists will be working in primary care offices, handling medication management for safety and insurance issues, as opposed to working in the retail pharmacy,” Plummer said.
For Taylor, she credits her pharmacist with being a huge help in finding the right medications and dosages to help keep her pericardial effusion in check.
“I have been able to stay on top of my condition, and my pharmacist is definitely a key part of my team,” she said. “I am grateful to have such a knowledgeable, helpful professional helping me stay healthy and manage my condition.”