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A Pharmacist’s Role Has Changed—For the Better

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It’s said that home is where the heart is — and for most of the U.S. population, home is also within five miles of a pharmacy. To celebrate that ubiquitous presence in the lives of patients, the American Pharmacists Association recognizes October as a “time to celebrate our pharmacists and to give thanks and appreciation for the important role they play every day in our health, our communities, and our lives.”

Over the last few years — both before and during the pandemic — pharmacists have seen that role evolve.

Emily Wetherholt, PharmD, a community pharmacist in Illinois, said that COVID-19 “definitely expanded” her scope of practice.

“As a profession, we ran into the fire. We started COVID-19 testing and were among the first to administer vaccines when they became available,” she recalled. She anticipates that scope changing even further, starting with the permissions to do more testing for influenza and COVID-19.  

“I see more pharmacists working in primary care offices. They may be making drug therapy suggestions, doing complete medication reviews, meeting with patients to manage chronic conditions like diabetes, or helping patients access medications by working with providers and payers on prior authorizations,” Wetherholt said. 

Rebecca Castner, PharmD, an ambulatory care pharmacist in Illinois, already calls her role “the primary care of pharmacy.” Castner educates and closely follows more complex patients, which frees up the PCPs in her clinic to see more acute conditions. She predicts her pharmacist role will expand to include even more complex patients.

“I see ambulatory pharmacists continuing to move forward within their role in chronic disease state management. Embedding a pharmacist on the care team is a win-win-win for pharmacists, patients, and PCPs alike, and we have shown our adaptability in the pandemic to meet our patients’ needs when given opportunity and autonomy,” Castner said.

Jason Martinez, PharmD, a Chief Population Health Officer in Ohio, agreed with Wetherholt and Castner that patient management is a big part of the future of pharmacy.

In his current role, Martinez works with patients with diabetes, and can initiate, discontinue, or change medication doses, as well as order labs to monitor disease progression. He sees this disease management growing to include other services as well. 

“I believe that collaborative roles will continue to expand for services such as smoking cessation, expanded immunizations, and test-to-treat options,” he said. “The role of dispensing will become more automated and delegated to advanced technician roles, allowing the pharmacist more time to spend with patients or prescribers optimizing therapy for better outcomes.”

For Lindsey Skubitz, PharmD, a clinical pharmacist in Minnesota, pharmacists have already been playing an essential role when it comes to labs. In her ED, pharmacists can now review all positive cultures and call patients to educate them on culture results. And while the role of pharmacy has changed a lot because of COVID-19, Skubitz sees advancements in treatments as a catalyst for some of the next changes in pharmacy.

“As newer therapies used to treat cancer come to the market, I can see the role of a pharmacist expanding to help accommodate and integrate these agents into hospitals and infusion centers,” she said.

According to Chris Johnson, PharmD, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice in Arkansas, pharmacists should be integrated into most patient care, based on all the benefits pharmacists provide.

“Plenty of research shows that pharmacists help patients get the most out of their medications, improve patients’ health, and keep patients out of the hospital, so patients deserve to have their pharmacist providing care,” he said.

In addition, pharmacists can be integral to enhancing patient safety. Soojin Jun, PharmD, a population health pharmacist in Illinois, so supports the idea of getting pharmacists involved in patient safety that she co-founded a patient safety activist group, Patients for Patient Safety US

“The third leading cause of death is medical error and medication safety is a great portion of that,” Jun said. “If more pharmacists are not involved in this cause, who will be?”

Though the last several years have been tumultuous for everyone in health care, pharmacists continue to be vital to patient care, whatever that patient care is.

“One of the greatest things about the pharmacy profession is that the life of a pharmacist can be unique to a specific practice setting or even a geographic region. Scope of practice may differ from state to state, but there are limitless opportunities from pharmacists actively practicing, to those in administration, and even to those who are entrepreneurial,” said Martinez.

Skubitz also felt that every pharmacist’s practice looks different, but that they all have the same goal. “The life of a pharmacist can vary based on the setting in which we practice, but regardless of our role, we need to constantly be learning as new medications, guidelines, and treatment options are developed. Keeping up with the changes can be a challenge, but I think working with students is a great way to stay up to date,” she said.

Talking with others who aren’t yet pharmacists or who aren’t in the field of pharmacy was important to Castner as well.   

“I am often surprised by how small and discrete the role of the pharmacist is often seen as by those not in the profession,” said Castner. “I often tell my team, ‘If you aren’t sure if I can help with something, ask — chances are the answer is yes! And if it’s not, I can probably direct you to the best resource that can help.’”

Despite all the changes through COVID-19 and the evolving scope of practice from state to state and setting to setting when it comes to prescribing and caring for patients, pharmacists still maintain an aura of positivity. 

“I love the profession of pharmacy,” Johnson said. “There are so many ways we can improve how patients use their medications to improve their health. It allows me to make a difference in my community and take care of my family. It takes a lot of work to become a pharmacist, but I truly believe it is worth it.” 

Where do you see pharmacy going in the next few years? Share your predictions in the comments.

Image by GoodStudio / Shutterstock

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