It’s not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant changes to the role of pharmacists and pharmacy staff, with most taking on extra responsibilities such as administering more vaccines and diagnostic tests. Driven by the need for convenience (90% of US consumers live within 5 miles of a Retail Pharmacy ¹) and safety during the pandemic, pharmacists were quickly elevated to critical healthcare providers. These changes aren’t necessarily temporary as we move out of the pandemic. In fact, it has brought to light the need for the local pharmacy to be more of an engaged healthcare provider of important services.
A Look Back at Pharmacy’s Growing Role in Healthcare
By May 2020 the world was changing rapidly. As with hospitals, pharmacies fell under essential services and remained open to provide customers with both OTC and prescription medications for healthy and ill patients alike. As part of a KS&R Retail Pharmacists Survey in 2020, one pharmacist noted, “We are seen more as healthcare providers. I am now thanked daily. I’d like to think that will continue.” Another pharmacist ideated, “Pharmacy will move to more automation and mail order. Pharmacists will be used more for consulting and educating patients. More curbside, more vaccinations when COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, more counseling by phone. I feel I am more accessible than other healthcare providers and will be used as a resource more frequently.”
When asked about the expected lasting impacts of COVID-19 on healthcare in May 2020, pharmacists predicted an increase in telehealth/telemedicine (18%), increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a focus on keeping healthcare workers as safe as possible (17%), and changes to customer/pharmacist interactions (increase in curbside services, in-home deliveries, mail order, etc.) (16%).
The Realities of Increased Responsibility for Pharmacists
However, these aspirations turned into burdens. The increased responsibilities have come at a cost, with pharmacists and pharmacy technicians reporting higher levels of burnout and stress than ever before. Ill equipped to handle the strain on resources with even more responsibility, many in retail are questioning when things will get better – and perhaps missing easier days before COVID-19.
A significant impact of COVID-19 has been staffing shortages, with some pharmacists and pharmacy technicians reporting that their workload has doubled with no monetary increase. Another KS&R survey in January 2023 reveals pharmacists are now administering 55% more vaccines compared to early 2020, and 13% see themselves as a critical resource on COVID-19 and other health conditions.
Pharmacists have been taking on more responsibility for prescribing, point-of-care flu and COVID-19 swabs, and an abundance of vaccines. In 2023, pharmacists predicted that the top lasting impacts of COVID-19 on healthcare would be burnout/employees leaving healthcare/fewer individuals entering the healthcare industry (24%), an annual COVID-19 vaccine (19%), and increased emphasis and attention on vaccinations/immunizations (16%).
“This has been an excuse for the role of pharmacist to expand to include so many extra responsibilities that we don’t have the capacity for, like prescribing, point-of-care flu and COVID-19 swabs, and giving an insane amount of vaccines,” shared one pharmacist. Another said, “Overall pharmacy demand for new services has increased and will ultimately lead to more overworked employees and burnout. Pharmacies are asked to provide more and more services like vaccinations, testing, and Paxlovid prescribing when we barely have the resources to provide basic prescription services.”
The Uncertain Future of Pharmacy
Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes in the role of pharmacists, impacting the way they are viewed as healthcare providers and the responsibilities they have taken on. While the retail pharmacy’s convenience is still enviable as a free resource to its customers, it’s still unknown how long the local retail pharmacy can continue as is. Many need resources and support to continue to provide quality care to patients, and have addressed staffing challenges with limiting pharmacy hours to the public. Their workload remains, and many using after hours to catch up with their workload.
Has the opportunity passed for pharmacists to take on more of a clinical role, or can the healthcare industry make way for this emerging role of the Pharmacist? I hope not. In my years’ interviewing pharmacists, nearly all have said that they went into this field with the hope of helping patients. Is this a lofty ideal? With advances we’ve seen in the past 3 years in other retail settings, it would be nice to see similar technological advances used in pharmacies – and allow pharmacists to truly interact and serve their customers in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way.
¹ “9 out of 10 Americans live close to community pharmacy”. EurekAlert. News release. July 28, 2022. Accessed March 2023. Available: https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/960126.