Telepharmacy’s Role in Emergency Response

Adam Chesler, PharmD & Jessica Adams, PharmD

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Toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer, canned goods, frozen food, gloves, masks...

What do all these items have in common? Many are items you can normally (and easily) find at your local grocery store, but they are also items that become scarce during times of emergency.

Safe and convenient pharmacy access is also essential in these times. When things are “normal,” a pharmacy is a place you visit several times a year to pick up your medications. But when times are uncertain, such as during a pandemic or other crisis, patients need their pharmacy to be a place of solace with shelves stocked full of essential supplies and a trusted healthcare professional available to address their health needs.

Unfortunately, during emergencies numerous factors can limit pharmacy access: lack of transportation, pharmacy closures, or even quarantine. Telepharmacy provides a key lifeline to pharmacies and affected patient populations during these times by remotely connecting pharmacists with small-footprint or contact-free pharmacies, and restoring access to pharmacy care.

Let's take a look at a few emergency situations telepharmacy can address.

Global, National, & Local Health Emergencies

Health emergencies can include anything from everyday acute illnesses up to the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Telepharmacy could have a major impact in alleviating many of these crises.

Take the mental health crisis. The World Health Organization estimates 450 million people suffer from some type of psychiatric or mental health disorder, making neuropsychiatric disorders the leading causes of disability in the US, followed by cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, and cancers. This population is a unique group that requires specialized pharmaceutical care, but they often have difficulty accessing pharmacy services and remaining compliant to medication regimens; both of which play a large role in successful treatment.

In fact, patients who fail to fill their prescriptions upon discharge are 75% more likely to be re-hospitalized. However, a telepharmacy located inside a mental health clinic allows patients to receive specialized treatment, connect with a pharmacist, and fill their prescription all in the same location, which removes barriers to care and increases the likelihood of adherence. Evidence shows pharmacy access at the point of care significantly improves adherence to all medications (not just antipsychotics), decreases rates of hospitalization, and lowers emergency department use.

This same idea can apply to other disease states or groups that require specialty care including HIV, geriatrics, and pediatrics to name a few. Access to a residency-trained pharmacist can improve outcomes at any of these clinics by improving access to the first fill.

In the case of pandemics, like the one we’re currently experiencing with COVID-19, telepharmacy presents safety advantages that are crucial to mitigating the spread of a highly contagious virus. Maintaining social distance in interactions with healthcare providers is imperative to the safety of the provider and the hundreds of patients with whom they will interact. This keeps pharmacists and technicians from getting ill so they can keep the pharmacy open while reducing spread.

Telepharmacy, like telehealth, allows for the provision of pharmacy services to patients remotely. This means pharmacists and technicians can maintain a safe distance and pharmacists can counsel patients face-to-face by using “touchless” workflow capabilities, or what we like to call the Virtual Face Mask. Pharmacist consultation can even occur on a patient's cell phone enabling social distancing and ease of use in times of emergency. Telepharmacy allows access to a pharmacist from anywhere, which is a huge advantage to patient outcomes. Pharmacists have as high a risk of contracting the virus as nurses, and it is important to allow pharmacists to utilize technology to provide the same patient care without putting themselves or their patients at risk.

Patients need medications more than ever during health emergencies, and when pharmacy access is not available disease state relapses, hospital readmissions, mortality rates, and healthcare costs may all rise.

Natural Disasters

We’ve witnessed an unfortunate slew of recent natural disasters; from the fires in California, flooding in Texas, tornadoes in Tennessee, to the recent earthquake in Utah. In these times of need, telepharmacy provides a solution for people living in affected areas across the country.

When disaster strikes, remote dispensing site telepharmacies can be quickly opened to increase patient access to a pharmacist in areas which may have lost their pharmacy to the natural disaster. Pharmacists in neighboring communities can provide services from their host pharmacy to patients in the devastated area at a telepharmacy while the community and the pharmacy rebound.

Mobility in healthcare is vital when it comes to responding to natural disasters, and the technology available today allows for more mobility than ever. Telepharmacy helps pharmacists respond to the need caused by natural disasters and provide services, temporarily or permanently, in areas where they are needed most.

Provider Shortages

Provider shortages are common and ever-increasing, but they are nonetheless an emergency that requires a swift response from the healthcare world. Pharmacy is not immune to this problem. In many communities, rural and urban, due to provider shortages the pharmacist is the only healthcare professional available. Unfortunately there has been a steady decline in the number of independent pharmacies nationwide, leaving communities and patients without access to a local pharmacy. Patients living in medically underserved areas are more likely to experience non-adherence to medication and higher readmission rates simply because their access to a pharmacy or any health care provider is not convenient.

Telepharmacy is a financially viable alternative to bridge the gap between underserved populations and the vital healthcare services pharmacists provide. By sharing pharmacists across multiple locations, pharmacies are able to survive despite lower prescription volumes at individual locations. Additionally, when patients have pharmacy access locally they are more likely to fill prescriptions, receive valuable health counseling from their pharmacist, and experience better overall health outcomes.

Embracing telepharmacy can play a major role in responding to emergency situations. Telepharmacy is a vital solution which should be considered key to improving patient care. Telepharmacy technology has been utilized for over 20 years in the United States. Regulatory barriers are still in place in many states across the nation, limiting the ability for our pharmacists to respond to urgent needs in a timely manner. If we’ve learned anything from history, it is that we need to be prepared for a worst-case scenario. More than ever, the time is NOW to address these obstacles which prevent the practice of telepharmacy. Like every other healthcare professional practicing telehealth, we need to enable our pharmacists to provide the care they are educated and trained to provide for patients.

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