Practicing at 'the top of their profession': are pharmacists able to fully contribute?

DENVER — The nation's vast, multi-trillion dollar healthcare industry churns up plenty of statistics — a constant stream of them, in fact. But here's one that may get your attention: nearly 70% of people in the United States don't have or don't use a primary care physician.

That bombshell was dropped on chain pharmacy leaders Sunday by NACDS board chairman and Walgreens president and CEO Greg Wasson, as reported by Alaric DeArment of Drug Store News. In a well-attended kickoff to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores' 2012 Pharmacy and Technology Conference at the Colorado Convention Center, the top executive at the industry's leading drug chain laid out an airtight case for expanding pharmacy's role as a potential solution to many of the nation's healthcare woes.

Emergency rooms are overflowing, Wasson said. Another 30 million to 40 million Americans will soon enter the health system as they gain insurance coverage through the healthcare-reform act. There already aren't enough primary care physicians to handle the patient load. And the costs of primary care, let alone the costs of emergency room visits, are stretching healthcare budgets of both patients and health plan payers beyond the breaking point.

All those forces are pulling pharmacy retailers to step up their game, Wasson told NACDS members. "If pharmacists and nurse practitioners are allowed to practice at the top of their profession, our community pharmacies can provide a high percentage of primary care services in the U.S.," he said.

If pharmacists and NPs are given a full seat at the new healthcare table with all the health-and-wellness offerings they're capable of providing — such as full-spectrum immunizations, health screenings, patient monitoring and medication therapy management — they can "change the face of healthcare in this country," said Walgreens' CEO.

Wasson's speech was a challenge to all pharmacy leaders. "Our product used to be dispensing pills safely and efficiently, but today our product is that and much more," he asserted. "Our product is an outcome — an improved health outcome — that only a face-to-face encounter with a community pharmacist can accomplish."

Notwithstanding the huge and constantly growing volume of prescriptions that need to be dispensed to aging Americans and the increasing complexity of pharmaceutical treatments, is Wasson on solid ground with what the typical community pharmacist can accomplish? Granted, workplace automation, e-prescribing and the centralizing of administrative and claims adjudication tasks by many chains may be easing dispensing workloads for pharmacists, particularly as pharmacy techs step up their own training and skills. But so far, at least, are those steps enough to let pharmacists "practice at the top of their profession" and fully contribute to a health system that clearly needs their full engagement?

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