As frontline health care professionals, pharmacists can help their communities address pressing public health issues, including the opioid addiction epidemic, vaccine education and hypertension.

Earlier today, at an APHA Annual Meeting workshop on “Demonstrating Our Collective Impact: Pharmacy and Public Health Collaborations to Create the Healthiest Nation,” nearly three-dozen attendees learned about successful public health initiatives that engage pharmacists and their unique health promotion skills.

pharmacist bandaging woman's arm

Currently, the U.S. is home to about 62,000 pharmacies, and more than 88% of people live within five miles of a pharmacy, according to workshop moderator Lisa Koonin, founder and principal at Health Preparedness Partners. In fact, people visit a pharmacy five to nine times more frequently than their primary care physician in a given year.

“People trust their pharmacists,” Koonin told workshop attendees. “And in many communities, the pharmacist is the health care provider. That’s the person that people go to to ask for advice.”

In addition to being experts in dispensing, tracking and monitoring medications, pharmacists are also skilled at patient counseling and health education, Koonin noted.

“We know that with chronic health today we need every bit of those wrap-around patient counseling and teaching services we can get to make a difference with patients’ health,” she said.

Workshop discussions also focused on one of the nation’s most troubling public health emergencies — the opioid addiction and overdose crisis. Judy Rosser, executive director of the Blair County, Pennsylvania, Drug and Alcohol Program, outlined the challenges her county has faced. In 2017, Blair County, home to a population of 125,000, was ranked No. 1 in dispensing opioids and No. 2 in prescribing opioids in the state.

Rosser described how her program works directly with numerous partners, including local pharmacies. For example, she said, helpful initiatives include a real-time prescription drug monitoring program and standing orders at pharmacies for naloxone, a lifesaving medicine that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Another program known as Project Lifeline trains pharmacists to screen patients with an opioid prescription, conduct a brief intervention and, if needed, refer the patient for treatment. The pharmacists also conduct a secondary screening and potential treatment referral for hepatitis A and B and HIV. The program — a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy’s Program Evaluation and Research Unit and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Foundation — is now operating in seven pharmacies in the county.

Workshop attendees also heard from representatives from five pharmacy chains: Rite Aid, CVS Health, Walgreens, Kroger Health and Meijer. Some of those pharmacies keep naloxone in stock, offer drug disposal units in stores, donate disposal units to police departments and provide patient education materials.

In 12 states, for example, Rite Aid offers pharmacists an analytics tool called NarxCare that helps pharmacists determine a customer’s risk for overdose. Rite Aid also offers DisposeRx, a packet that when mixed with hot water will safely destroy a medication and help prevent drug diversion. It’s available for free in all stores. CVS is piloting an at-home disposal system.

During the workshop, speakers challenged public health professionals to reach out and partner with local pharmacists to improve and protect community health. Plenary speaker Judy Monroe, a family physician and president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, encouraged attendees to consider not only patient access barriers, but the barriers that pharmacists face as they try to engage in community health improvement efforts.

“Pharmacists in many places remain limited to be able to practice at the top of their license, and so pharmacists continue to push for provider status and fair reimbursement for service delivery,” Monroe said. “But these issues should be a priority for everyone who wants to increase capacity to support public health issues.”

Koonin added: “People don’t understand generally in health and public health how pharmacies can be integrated as key community partners to improve health. I would like to challenge you today to think about what you hear…and talk to your colleagues about how you might be able to create partnerships to improve community health through pharmacies.”

Photo by Steve Debenport, courtesy iStockphoto