Pharmacists Can Help Address Health Care Shortages

Pharmacists Can Help Address Health Care Shortages

"There is firm evidence that eliminating pharmacy technician ratios will allow Montana's pharmacies to do more to help patients, advance public health and bolster the resiliency of the healthcare system."

Amid the immense pressure on Montana’s health care system during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state temporarily waived over 130 regulations to boost health care system capacity and aid the pandemic response. Among the regulations waived was a rule restricting how many technicians pharmacists are allowed to supervise, referred to as the pharmacy technician ratio.

If regulations had to be waived during an emergency because they were holding back the health care system, there’s a strong case to make that they weren’t necessary in the first place. Thankfully, that’s also the conclusion reached by the Montana Board of Pharmacy in a January 2022 proposal to permanently eliminate Montana’s pharmacy technician ratio.

The Board of Pharmacy’s proposal is great news for efforts to expand health care access in Montana. There is firm evidence that eliminating pharmacy technician ratios will allow Montana’s pharmacies to do more to help patients, advance public health and bolster the resiliency of the healthcare system.

Pharmacy technicians play key supporting roles at local pharmacies, doing everything from inventory management to filling prescriptions and providing basic medical care for patients. By taking on some of the tasks which do not require a pharmacist’s high level of qualification, pharmacy technicians free up pharmacists to focus on providing quality patient care.

However, Montana currently caps the number of pharmacy technicians allowed at a ratio of one pharmacist for every four technicians. While the original intent of this regulation may have been to protect patient safety, researchers note service quality may actually decline under strict ratio rules as pharmacists must focus less on patient care due to a lack of adequate support staff. By comparison, Montana places no limits on the number of nurses or medical assistants that may be overseen by a physician.

Twenty-three other states have removed pharmacy technician ratios in recent years. During the time when the pharmacy technician ratio was temporarily waived in Montana, the Board of Pharmacy received neither patient safety concerns nor complaints of any nature.

Expanding the ability of pharmacists to care for patients could play a critical role in filling the gaps in Montana’s health care system, especially in rural communities. For example, Powder River County has no local primary care physician. There is, however, a community pharmacy.

Leveraging pharmacists’ extensive knowledge and skillset with pharmaceutical drugs, states have begun to allow pharmacists to prescribe medications commensurate with their training. Montana already allows pharmacists to prescribe and administer vaccinations. Idaho has taken it a step further, authorizing pharmacists to prescribe medications for minor, non-emergency ailments that do not require a new diagnosis and can be identified with a low-risk test, such as the flu or strep throat.

Just like in Montana, there are rural communities in Idaho that may have a pharmacy but no local primary care provider. Idaho patients who require only routine prescriptions can now get them from their local pharmacy, saving an unnecessary trip to the nearest doctor’s office or an expensive emergency room visit. Additionally, local community pharmacies are often open longer than doctors’ offices and no appointment is needed — making care even more accessible.

Pharmacists are highly skilled health care professionals who can play an important role in addressing Montana’s health care shortages, but only if we let them. After eliminating pharmacy technician ratio regulations, expanding pharmacist prescribing could be a logical next step for Montana to continue leveraging pharmacists’ skills to increase health care access.

This article originally appeared in Lee Newspapers

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