Pharmacists should be allowed to keep effectively serving their communities

February 15, 2023 12:04 am

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Pharmacists are the backbone of our local health care ecosystem, and they have played a critical role in both slowing the spread of COVID-19 and providing public health education to the patients they serve. As lawmakers look to improve access to care for Virginians, first on their agenda should be empowering pharmacists to test and treat patients for illnesses like strep throat, the flu and COVID-19.

Virginia residents rely on their neighborhood pharmacies as a familiar resource for essential health care services like picking up a prescription or receiving an annual flu shot. Pharmacies are often open later than other health care providers and can usually be visited without an appointment, making them a more convenient option for Virginians. In addition, patients visit a community pharmacy 35 times a year on average as opposed to the four times a year they see other primary care providers (PCPs); pharmacists are the health care professionals people see most often to discuss their health.

While pharmacists are a convenient option, they often are the only health care professionals nearby for communities across the commonwealth, particularly in Southwest Virginia. Almost 90% of all Americans live within 5 miles of a community pharmacy. Nearly half of Virginia communities, primarily in rural or inner city areas, do not have enough PCPs to care for all of the patients in the area. This often forces patients to travel long distances to get the care they need, or they end up going without treatment.

Even before COVID-19, Virginia was expected to have a shortage of almost 4,000 physicians by 2030. To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Virginia pharmacists stepped up to improve access to care across the state by administering vaccines. Coming out of the pandemic and seeing how critical pharmacists were in efforts to contain it, we must further empower pharmacists to continue providing additional critical care to Virginians, particularly those in rural and underserved communities.

Fortunately, Virginia lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would do exactly that. House Bill 2274 would expand pharmacist capabilities and allow them to test for illnesses and administer medications to patients with certain conditions, such as urinary tract infections and strep throat. In addition, this legislation requires that any care administered by pharmacists be reported to patients’ primary care providers and also empowers pharmacists to refer patients to local PCPs if needed, further closing existing gaps in health care.

Patients are only able to receive care when they have access to care. Sadly, many Virginians are unable to access health care when they need it because they cannot find an appropriate provider, are unable to afford care, cannot take time off work for an appointment or have inadequate access to travel to an appointment; pharmacists can help alleviate some of these burdens. Pharmacies are open longer, located closer and are a trusted community resource. We can help patients get the care they need when they need it, but we need the power to do so.

If Virginia lawmakers pass HB 2274, they increase access to critical health care for countless Virginians across the commonwealth by empowering pharmacists to test and treat patients in limited circumstances. While the pandemic showed us how large the gaps in health care access are across communities, we need to take steps together to help close them. HB 2274 is a step forward for Virginia patients.

Dr. Lura Thompson lives in Tazewell and is a clinical pharmacist and Managing Network Facilitator for CPESN VA, a network of independently-owned pharmacies across the commonwealth. 

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