Millions of Americans live in areas – both rural and urban – void of pharmacies. Telepharmacy services are beginning to bridge the gap.
To date, telepharmacy technology has been implemented mainly in two settings: in rural communities that are at least 10 miles from the nearest retail pharmacy and by health systems looking to improve service across multi-hospital, multi-clinic networks.
One of the largest telepharmacy networks in the U.S. is Catholic Health Initiatives’ Virtual Health Services in the upper Midwest, which connects 48 healthcare facilities with its 24-hour telepharmacy command center in Fargo, North Dakota.
Now telepharmacy services are coming to underserved urban locales. Just as low-income neighborhoods are sometimes dubbed “food deserts” because they lack supermarkets, many inner cities are “pharmacy deserts” because they don’t have a single retail or clinical pharmacy.
According to the public policy journal Health Affairs, about one million people in Chicago alone live in neighborhoods that are pharmacy deserts.
Large stretches of Baltimore are also considered pharmacy deserts – and residents’ troubles grew even worse in the wake of the Freddie Gray protests (when one pharmacy was burned to the ground and several others closed for weeks). To help alleviate the problem, the Baltimore Health Department allowed residents to use the 311 telephone service to obtain transportation to area pharmacies.
Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) are clinics that typically serve patients in pharmacy deserts – and many are interested in sharing the cost of a telepharmacy operation. With telepharmacy technology, an FQHC can dispense medications at the point of care in a way that’s more convenient and affordable for local patients.
FQHCs serve about 22 million Americans, and 33% are located in rural communities. There are FQHCs in all types of communities, like Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor, Maine, which provides medication reconciliation and diabetes management. But only a handful of FQHCs have implemented telepharmacy programs. That could change in the year ahead, however, because the Affordable Care Act has provided $11 billion for FQHC expansion.