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For Minor Health Issues, Pharmacist Care May Be the Low-Cost Option
  • Posted May 29, 2024

For Minor Health Issues, Pharmacist Care May Be the Low-Cost Option

Allowing pharmacists to treat minor illnesses could potentially expand health care access to more people and save millions of dollars, a new study suggests.

Care for a range of minor health issues -- urinary tract infections, shingles, animal bites and headaches -- would cost an average of about $278 less when treated in pharmacies rather than in a doctor's office or urgent care clinic, researchers estimated.

And just about everyone treated by a pharmacist had their medical problem resolved, results showed.

“Pharmacists, especially in the outpatient community setting, are a viable solution to part of our patient access to care problem in our state and country,” said lead study author Julie Akers, an associate professor of pharmacotherapy at Washington State University.

“Pharmacists are trained and qualified to do this work, and unfortunately in many settings, highly underutilized,” Akers added in a university news release. “And they could have a huge impact on how fast patients access care, which can minimize the complexity and the progression of their condition.”

The study focused on the state of Washington, where since 1979 pharmacists have had the legal right to treat patients if they've received a doctor's authorization to prescribe and administer certain drugs.

Pharmacists are trained in clinical evaluation of common illnesses as part of their education, and already make recommendations for conditions that can be treated with over-the-counter medications, Akers noted.

The right to treat patients -- called “prescribing authority” -- takes that practice to the next level by allowing them to prescribe medications if OTC drugs aren't enough.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from nearly 500 patients who received care from 175 pharmacists at 46 pharmacies in Washington state between 2016 and 2019.

The team followed up with patients 30 days after their pharmacy visit to assess treatment effectiveness, then compared those cases with insurance data from people with similar ailments who sought care at a doctor's office, urgent care clinic or ER.

For nearly every minor illness in the study, pharmacy care proved effective, results show. Almost all illnesses resolved after an initial visit with a pharmacist.

Treatment by a pharmacist also cost a lot less. For example, treatment with antibiotics for an uncomplicated urinary tract infection cost about $30 on average at a pharmacy, compared with $121 at a doctor's office and $963 at an emergency room, researchers report.

Giving pharmacists the authority to treat minor conditions could prove a boon to rural areas and other places with limited access to doctors, the researchers concluded.

“We've seen over time, more and more patients struggle to get access to care,” Akers said. “Over the past couple of decades, we've seen inappropriate use of urgent cares and emergency departments for things that really didn't need go to that level of service."

If more states or the federal government embrace this approach, then people could come to expect those sorts of medical services at pharmacies, researchers said -- just as folks have embraced the idea of receiving vaccinations there.

Future research will look into helping pharmacies transition to medical billing, which could greatly increase access to care for people who don't have the money to pay out-of-pocket for treatment, the team said.

The new study was published recently in the journal ClinicoEconomics and Outcomes Research.

More information

The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy have more about direct patient care at pharmacies.

SOURCE: Washington State University, news release, May 28, 2024

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