The Changing Role of America's Pharmacists

The focus now is to help prevent disease

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 20, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Helping customers pick appropriate over-the-counter preparations to soothe minor coughs and colds, bee stings and poison ivy rashes is all in a day's work for Patty Johnston, a registered pharmacist and owner of Colony Drug & Wellness Center in Beckley, W.Va.

But that's just the start of it.

Johnston's shop also performs a variety of health screenings, runs a health and fitness center and helps state employees with diabetes keep track of their blood sugar levels and adjust their medication. The diabetes program, conducted as part of a six-county pilot project, meant extra training for each of the three pharmacists on staff.

What Colony Drug is doing is atypical. But could it be the wave of the future?

"I think it is because we can't just be focused on treating diseases -- we've got to focus on preventing them," said Johnston, who serves as president of the West Virginia Pharmacists Association.

Managing disease through medication is a concept embodied in the new Medicare prescription drug benefit slated to take effect in 2006. Under the law, health plans that offer a Medicare Part D benefit must offer so-called "medication therapy management services." By ensuring that beneficiaries who have multiple chronic diseases take their medications appropriately, pharmacists expect to play a critical role in the care of older Americans.

It's all part of the evolving role of America's pharmacists.

For instance, October is National Talk About Prescriptions Month, a time when many pharmacies sponsor "brown bag" medication check-ups. People taking multiple medications are encouraged to toss their prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines and nutritional supplements into a bag and bring it to their pharmacist, who will scan for expired medications, duplicate prescriptions and drug interactions.

Taking medicine correctly is no small matter and mistakes can be expensive. Medication-related injuries and deaths cost the United States an estimated $177 billion in 2000, according to a 2001 study in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association. That's more than double the estimated cost of drug-related health problems in 1995.

Problems often arise when patients fail to receive the medication they need or get the wrong medication; when overdoses occur or under-dosing persists. Some medicines cause adverse reactions in certain patients. And there's a risk of going on a medicine that interacts with something else the person is taking.

Avoiding those pitfalls can be a particular challenge for people taking several prescriptions. That's where pharmacists can help. But even people who don't have complex medication regimens may find their pharmacist fills a critical information gap.

"Many times patients are handed a prescription just before their physician or other health professional leaves the room," explained N. Lee Rucker, senior vice president for policy and public affairs at the National Council on Patient Information and Education (NCPIE). "There really needs to be a thorough conversation, particularly if it's for a new medicine or a new health condition that's just been diagnosed."

Talk About Prescriptions Month is the NCPIE's annual campaign to encourage a dialogue between patients and their caregivers about the safe use of medications. One way patients can kick-start the discussion is by reading the information leaflets that accompany their prescription medications, NCPIE suggests.

Those leaflets describe what a drug is used for and its potential side effects, among other important facts, and they're about to become even more user-friendly. Beginning in 2006, patients filling new prescriptions will receive a printout in simple language and in bigger type.

"What it should mean is that they will be seeing a much more useful leaflet with every prescription medicine," said Rucker, whose organization spearheaded the effort to improve those written communications.

NCPIE hopes to get Americans in the habit of reading and heeding those leaflets and keeping them on hand in case they experience adverse reactions.

And patients should never be afraid to speak up if they have a question or concern about a medication, Johnston said. "We're trying to work toward their good health, and I feel most patients feel that we're on their team; they see us helping them."

More information

Check with the National Council on Patient Information and Education for more tips on medication safety.

SOURCES: Patty Johnston, R.Ph., owner, Colony Drug & Wellness Center, Beckley, W.Va., and president, West Virginia Pharmacists Association; N. Lee Rucker, senior vice president, policy and public affairs, National Council on Patient Information and Education, Bethesda, Md.; March/April 2001 Journal of the American Pharmacists Association
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