Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Tele-pharmacy can help rural towns with no drugstore

Maintaining access to pharmacy services is critical in rural communities; without it, chronically ill, and aging residents have a harder time getting medications, which makes it more difficult for them to stay in their homes and hometowns. But changes in the health-care system and deep cuts in reimbursement rates by companies known as "pharmacy benefit managers" have left many small towns without a pharmacy.

"A Rural Policy Research Institute study published in 2014 noted that 924 independently owned rural pharmacies (12 percent of the total) had gone out of business in the previous 10 years. A similar survey is currently ongoing to update the status of pharmacies in rural America," Kevyn Burger reports for Next Avenue, a Twin Cities PBS-sponsored nonprofit national news service that covers America's seniors.

Keith Mueller, director of the RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis, told Burger: "These pharmacies work with a small customer base so they have no way to drive up the volume to cover their costs. They can’t negotiate lower rates with pharmacy benefit managers, drug companies or health insurance companies."

The loss of a rural pharmacy disproportionately hurts senior citizens, since people age 65 and over take three times more prescriptions than the average American, and are usually the customers most in need of guidance from a pharmacist.

Tele-pharmacy is an increasing popular option for rural residents who don't have a drugstore nearby. North Dakota first regulated the technology in 2002, and today there are 81 sites throughout the state serving about 80,000 rural residents. The tele-pharmacy in the 600-person town of New England, N.D., is one. Customers can have face-to-face conversations via HD video interface with licensed pharmacist Jody Doe, who works 95 miles away. Using the video connection, Doe can also monitor and supervise the on-site pharmacy technician who counts out the pills for New England customers. He can also send medications by mail. "Without this, people would have to get in the car and drive miles and miles down the road," Doe told Burger. "For older folks in the winter, that can be a real hardship."

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