As COVID-19 continues to challenge America, our healthcare system is either in a crisis, at a crossroads, or at the precipice of an opportunity, depending on your perspective.
Even pre-pandemic, it was clear more efficiencies in the system were needed, given the U.S. spent $3.6 trillion on healthcare in 2018, based on the most recent CMS data, considerably more than all other developed countries. The pandemic has magnified the gaps we need to fill before the next inevitable health crisis hits. Simultaneously, the incidence of chronic conditions and spending to manage them continue to rise. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the unique position of pharmacies in communities and their relationship to many stakeholders in the healthcare system. This could be an antidote for what ails the health of our nation.
Accessible care when you need it. Pharmacies can—and should where allowed—take pressure off the health system, and they have a demonstrated track record. It was during another public health crisis, H1N1, that pharmacists became key to immunization strategies, creating programs that now allow us to widely administer immunizations. And looking at data from an influenza epidemic simulation study published in 2018, by vastly expanding access to vaccinations, pharmacies were estimated to have saved up to $2.8 billion for third-party payers by lessening the number and severity of flu cases, and nearly $100 billion for society in productivity losses and earnings. The access and convenience of pharmacies is something that will be critical to quick deployment of a COVID vaccine when it becomes available.
From immunizations to acute-care needs—be it a flu test and prescription, COVID testing, strep testing or many others—pharmacists can continue to alleviate burdens on the health system, freeing up doctors' time to focus on more complex condition management and drive costs down (See "Pharmacists in Ohio managing care as providers—and getting paid for it too," Sept. 26). Longer term, pharmacies could play a greater role in chronic condition management, whether it's diabetes and A1C testing or working closely with physicians to optimize medications.
Connecting patients to care, remotely and in person. COVID-19 certainly accelerated the digital health trends we've seen for the last several years, with a dramatic increase in patients seeking care and medicines from home while under lockdown. Many doctor's offices were closed, and telehealth usage surged.
This is only the beginning for digital solutions that can reinvigorate the healthcare system during this pandemic and beyond. As a COVID-19 vaccine becomes a near-term reality, we'll need end-to-end solutions with testing and vaccines so that the information is tied together and communicated to the entire healthcare team. Despite the importance of telehealth, pharmacies can remain the physical connection point for patients, acting as the glue for digital and physical care experiences.
Improving health equity. COVID-19 is not the only health issue emerging this year. With the racial equity movement highlighting countless societal disparities in our country, it will take the entire health ecosystem— pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, health departments, community leaders—to help.
Already we've seen that an integrated primary-care and pharmacy approach increases medication adherence; contributes to improved patient outcomes; and for patients with chronic conditions, results in lower than average emergency room visits, unnecessary hospitalizations and readmissions. Over the next five years, half of the 500 Village Medical at Walgreens clinics opened will be located in professional shortage areas or underserved populations to help address the approximately 65 million Americans living in what's known as a "primary-care desert."
The future of U.S. healthcare is already visible, in some part thanks to COVID-19 and the need to adapt quickly. While all of this change is necessary to better serve patients and alleviate the cost burdens on the healthcare system, some things will still look the same—pharmacists are, and will continue to be, among the most accessible, trusted, healthcare professionals across the nation. So for much of what ails our healthcare system, especially access to care, one approach is for patients to continue a practice that's worked for the past 118 years—go ask your local pharmacist.