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October 15, 2021

Pharmacies and the Future of Health Care

Use of COVID-19 testing and vaccination services at community pharmacies demonstrates they can play a bigger role in care delivery

Community pharmacists are often overlooked for the vital roles they play in our health care system. But in the public health emergency of the last 18 months, they have come out of the shadows to lead the fight against COVID-19.

Pharmacies became coronavirus test sites early in the pandemic, at a time when the country was short on testing and there were long lines at drive-through testing sites. Millions of people have gotten tested at their local drugstores, and that vital data has helped public health professionals strategize on how to slow the virus’ spread.

Offering testing was just the first step. When COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time, pharmacy workers went to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to deliver shots in the arms of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Then, more than a dozen retail pharmacy chains, including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger, H-E-B, and Rite Aid, as well as local drugstores became vaccination sites for their cities and towns.

To give you a sense of their impact, let’s look at data that national chains CVS and Walgreens have shared about their vaccination programs. At the beginning of August, they had administered 59 million doses, according to their latest disclosures. At the time, the total represented 17% of all doses given in the United States.

The embrace of pharmacies for COVID-19 vaccination and testing drives home the point that we must meet consumers where they are to address the health of the bulk of the population. Too much healthcare innovation is focused on the high-end consumer. If we are going to transform healthcare and focus on the prevention of costly chronic diseases, care has to become more convenient and cost-effective.

As consumers bear more of the cost of healthcare out of pocket, they are becoming increasingly engaged in managing their health. They want choice and affordable, accessible options. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% of medical decisions depend on lab testing results. Increasing access to medically accurate, quality testing will help people get the care they need, when they need it.

Pharmacists are well-positioned to play more integrated roles in new care delivery models, working side by side with physicians, nurses, and other community health providers to improve medical outcomes, reduce hospital admissions, and lower healthcare costs. There are more than 67,000 community pharmacies in the United States, and most Americans live within five miles of one. Pharmacists also rank among the most trusted medical professionals, according to Gallup’s annual consumer survey of jobs with the highest “honesty and ethical standards.”

Pharmacies were moving into primary care long before the pandemic, and consumers seem to be responding. In 2020, nearly half (48%) of retail pharmacy customers used at least one health and wellness-oriented service provided by their pharmacy, up 5 percentage points from 2019, according to the J.D. Power U.S. Pharmacy StudyBabson Diagnostics’ own preference study also shows consumers have a feeling of comfort with pharmacy staff and favor the convenient locations of drug stores.

COVID-19 has created new and unprecedented challenges for our health care system. Pharmacies have clearly demonstrated that they can play a bigger role in improving access to affordable and quality care for all Americans.