Expanding the use of technology that automates certain tasks will allow healthcare providers to do more with less risk of compounding burnout.
What does the future hold for pharmacy technology? It’s a question we’re asking across the industry, but as a pharmacist who works to improve technology to make it easier and safer to help care for patients, I'm sharing four predictions for 2024.
Imagine walking up to the pharmacy counter and the pharmacist writes, fills, and dispenses your medication—all without having to visit your doctor. This medication is not available over the counter or without a prescription, but it didn’t require a physician’s order. It could be medication to treat high blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes. Or it could be medication to aid in smoking cessation or even antibiotics.
It would be the logical progression of the test-to-treat services provided by pharmacists that began during the pandemic. Since that time, pharmacists' roles have continued to evolve, and they are providing routine care for their patients, including immunizations and test-to-treat for common illnesses like strep or influenza.
The need for pharmacists to provide this care isn’t stopping in 2024. The CDC’s recent alert indicating an urgent need for clinicians to increase immunizations, as hospitalizations increased by 200% for influenza, 60% for RSV and 51% for COVID-19, since mid-November.
Pharmacists are poised to help. The perception of pharmacists has shifted both in the public sphere and, more surprisingly, within the medical community. A 2023 survey shows prescribers and pharmacists agree that team-based care is a priority and nine in 10 prescribers and virtually all pharmacists believe it’s important for the industry to move to team-based care.
The challenge? While pharmacists are providing higher level patient care, it comes in addition to their regular work tied to dispensing medications. What’s more, they aren’t being compensated for providing what have become essential patient care services, such as administering tests or vaccines in most cases.
The need for pharmacy technicians’ roles to expand is clear. Techs must also be empowered to do quality assurance work, such as identifying typos, flagging conflicting patient directions, and verifying medication types and quantity. A shift in the role of pharmacy technicians means pharmacists can also make a shift towards deeper clinical interaction with patients.
Manual tasks (phone calls, faxes, and paperwork) have characterized so much pharmacy practice. That’s changing as pharmacy technology evolves. E-Prescribing was the first real push into pharmacy technology—a game-changer that brought significant advances to patient safety. Leveraging the benefits of electronic prescribing, which includes automated data such as drug description, quantity, and patient directions will be key.
Now, the focus is to inform the execution of clinical services with relevant, automated information such as diagnosis codes, lab information, and clinical notes from other providers the patient has seen. Relevant information means fewer manual tasks for pharmacists.
And as pharmacy technology gets more autonomous, highly trained pharmacy technicians can take more work off pharmacists’ plates. It’s not really a new concept, but now there’s greater momentum going into 2024.
In 2023, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians reached a burnout-breaking point: a 2022 systematic review found that 51% of pharmacists were experiencing burnout, and three-quarters of community pharmacies had trouble filling open positions, mainly pharmacy technician roles. That's on top of the burnout impacting primary care providers. By 2034, the United States will face a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians, according to estimates published by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Removing the structural burdens and administrative hoops clinicians must jump through is going to be key to alleviating burnout for physicians, pharmacists, and other care providers. But it's just one part. Patient care teams will continue to evolve, with physicians and pharmacists collaborating to provide accessible patient care, especially for chronic conditions.
Addressing the drivers of burnout is also a job for existing and innovative technology. And in 2024, we will see more technology that brings automation to the pharmacy that supports administrative tasks and allows pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to provide care at the top of the education and training, complimenting physician care plans as a team.
In all 50 states and Washington, D.C., collaborative practice agreements are enabling pharmacists to support primary care providers, to some degree. Often, these agreements allow pharmacists to manage patients with complex or chronic diseases, complementing the care plan established by their primary care physicians and can include ordering lab tests as part of medication management counseling or adjust medication regimens for diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, for example.
Collaborative practice agreements are often used in health systems and clinical settings, enabling team-based care provided by physicians and pharmacists, allowing both care providers to work at the full extent of their training and education.
As primary care provider shortages grow and patients wanting to receive routine care at the pharmacy close to home, clinical care teams are in greater demand. Yet, for pharmacists and technicians to truly be empowered to continue this work, in 2024, industry stakeholders must come together to make meaningful changes to reimbursement for pharmacists and establish comprehensive policies that support these essential care providers.
In 2024, we will see policymakers introduce bills that increase scope of practice (as they have done in Virginia), grant some aspects of provider status to pharmacists, or even reclassify medications that allow for pharmacist-originated prescriptions. But reimbursement will also be key to addressing workforce challenges and burnout. Garnering appropriate compensation for expanded care at the pharmacy will be critical to retaining pharmacy technicians who can support pharmacists in providing these services, without losing focus on maintaining the highest standards for patient safety.
About the Author
Larry King, Director, Product Safety & Performance, Surescripts. As a key member of Surescripts Critical Performance Improvements (CPI) team, Larry oversees quality relationships with key EHRs, health systems and pharmacies. He also manages the CPI Data Analytics and Patient Safety teams. Larry brings more than 10 years of pharmacy experience to his role, including high-volume retail pharmacy operations, system implementation and healthcare technology development. In his downtime, he enjoys sports, traveling and his mini labradoodle.
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