The Pharmacy Industry: Past, Present, and Future

The pharmacy industry is changing, giving pharmacists a front-seat role on patients' healthcare teams.The influence and impact of the profession of pharmacy casts a wider net than many have realized.  Pharmacies are no longer brick-and-mortar locations dispensing medications, selling personal care items, and developing photos. They have grown to become an integral component of not only treating illnesses but preventing and managing them. 

In tandem, pharmacists themselves have evolved beyond white coat wearing clinicians who simply pass pills in bags. They’ve slowly become recognized (and appreciated) for the unique expertise and skills they bring - all of which allow them to sit at the center of the intersection of chemistry, care delivery, and personal engagement. 

To truly understand the pharmacy industry, it’s important to understand where it originated, what it looks like today, how it’s changing, and what it may evolve to become. 

How we got here: The last 100 years of pharmacy in the United States 

The profession of pharmacy certainly isn’t a new one, although the pharmacists and pharmacies of today look quite different than they once did. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the pharmacy industry was not spared from the changes driven by the industrial revolution. At a time when the need for compounding medications and creating custom medications from unique ingredients became less needed due to the industrial mass production of medications at a large scale, the industry of pharmacy was put on the back burner.  

The tides turned around the 1950s, as pharmacists took a front seat role on patients’ healthcare teams. During this time, pharmacists were deeply ingrained in their communities. Often, when patients were suffering from an ailment, the pharmacist was the first person from whom they’d seek counsel.  In those days, many patients didn’t have the financial means to visit a physician’s office, so pharmacists treated patients at a much higher rate.  

It was only around the 1980s when the pharmacy profession began shifting to look more similarly to what it is today. The era of “pharmaceutical care” was upon us, an early precursor name to what we now know as medication therapy management (MTM). At this time, activities such as patient counseling became a larger part of pharmacists’ day to day responsibilities. In 1990, Medicaid began mandating patient counseling, cementing it as a critical component of the healthcare process, and one that remains important today. 

The current state: What pharmacy looks like today 

That brings us up to the modern day. Pharmacists remain as important as they’ve ever been, yet they face headwinds that pharmacists of the past did not. The bright side? There’s more opportunity for pharmacists than ever before. 

The modern pharmacist 

The modern pharmacist can work from anywhere, including the comfort of home.When we think of the pharmacists of today, the first image that comes to mind is someone standing behind the counter at either our local drugstore or community hospital. Our engagements are highly transactional – getting what we need, completing our transaction, and heading home. There is much work being done behind the scenes, creating chaos easily spotted while waiting in line to pick up your medications. Yet despite the volume of work, their clinical skills and wealth of knowledge is being underutilized on a monumental scale. 

Fortunately, select states around the country are recognizing and leveraging the value that pharmacists provide. In fact, nearly half of all US states officially recognize pharmacists as healthcare providers.  

Challenges faced by pharmacists today 

To the dismay of many, especially us here at Aspen RxHealth, far too many pharmacists are battling difficult work conditions daily. 

Modern-day pharmacies can be challenging work environments. From dawn to dusk, pharmacists and technicians are juggling competing priorities between phones ringing off the hook, impatient and often angry customers, inventory management, all while ensuring they are adequately staffed. The stakes – and associated stress levels – are high even for the calmest and most collected clinicians. Their challenges extend beyond increasingly alarming levels of stress, with some experiencing true health crises due to a lack of support. Visit any mainstream news outlet and you’re likely to find numerous stories of pharmacists fighting through heart attacks, miscarriages, and more while dutifully remaining behind the counter to provide medications to patients in need. 

An inflection point for the profession 

Between shifting labor markets, technological advancements such as AI, and an ever-sicker population, one thing is abundantly clear—the pharmacy profession is on the precipice of change. As a healthcare system, we’re staring down the decision of how to best utilize a workforce of over 300,000 of the top medication experts.  

Factors including change in the pharmacy industry 

There’s no denying that change is coming within healthcare, particularly the pharmacy industry. A perfect storm of advancements in technology, shifts in care delivery, and rapidly evolving dynamics in the pharmacist labor market are driving us into a new frontier.  

New technologies driving a revolution 

The practice of pharmacy has been no exception to facing changes arising from technological advancements in recent years. 

 Some of the world’s largest technology titans are even piloting programs to autonomously deliver medications to patients via drones, not to mention using robots to refill medications in a pharmacy.  

But perhaps the most impactful way in which pharmacy is being influenced by technology is how pharmacists are interacting with and delivering care to patients. Digital health platforms, such as Aspen RxHealth, are now allowing pharmacists to shirk the stresses of life behind the pharmacy counter. Instead, they can work anywhere they like, during any hours they like. It’s emblematic of how much of the workforce has adopted more casual remote work arrangements.  

Aspen RxHealth pharmacists don’t need to worry about quotas or deadlines, because there aren’t any. Instead, they can focus the entirety of their efforts and passions into giving patients the most dedicated care they can, in the form of comprehensive medication reviews (CMRs) with the intent of uncovering any hidden medication problems, getting a 360-degree view of everything a patient is taking (including supplements and OTC drugs), and preventing any future medication or health issues before they ever arise. 

This type of care delivery model does something that’s never been done before in the profession of pharmacy—separates the pharmacist from dispensing. Once we collectively realize and acknowledge that pharmacists are not inextricably bound to the duty of dispending, a world of possibilities opens. We have a workforce of passionate, intelligent, and educated clinicians looking for a new way to use their skills. It’s time we gave it to them. 

Shifting workplace dynamics in the pharmacy industry 

As previously mentioned, the legacy career path for pharmacists isn’t an easy one. It’s one that can be demanding and unfortunately often leads to pharmacists feeling undervalued, unappreciated, and burnt out.  

In recent years, a lot has changed in healthcare due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Surely most of us would like to put COVID behind us, but it led to important shifts in how pharmacists work.  

During the height of the pandemic, pharmacists, like many others were often laid off. Most often, this was due to vastly decreased numbers of patients and customers entering pharmacies in-person. However, this changed nearly overnight with the advent of COVID-19 vaccines. Seemingly overnight, thousands upon thousands of pharmacists were called upon to serve in the battle against the pandemic by administering vaccinations to patients. It’s at this point, the roller-coaster trend becomes visible.  

After largely reaching a ceiling on vaccine uptake, pharmacists were then laid off yet again in mass due to a lack of work. For many, this was the last straw, and we sadly saw many pharmacists leave the profession to pursue other opportunities.  

Finally, due to a lack of pharmacists, industry giants began offering enormous sign-on bonuses. $10,000, $50,000, Even $100,000 to attract the pharmacists they so clearly showed they didn’t truly value. It’s no wonder that pharmacists got the hint—they were viewed merely as numbers, both seasoned veterans and new graduates alike.  

Harnessing the power of pharmacists to create better health outcomes 

When it comes to medication therapy management and improving medication adherence, pharmacists are the right clinicians for the job without a doubt. Their unrivaled medication knowledge coupled with their ability to boost patients’ health literacy consultatively, suit them well in clinical programs aimed at improving health outcomes through medication optimization. 

In order for healthcare organizations to efficiently leverage the power of pharmacists, they should keep a couple things in mind:  

Meet members where they are 

The best healthcare comes from deep, meaningful relationships that drive patient engagement. Matching pharmacists to patients based on criteria such as disease state, language, and condition is critical to ensure the right pharmacist is caring for the right patient every time. 

The constraints of in-house pharmacy teams 

Many healthcare organizations have built teams of pharmacists to staff call centers to deliver MTM and other clinical pharmacy consultations to patients. However, what they may not realize is that such models have an inherent lack of elasticity. Meeting a larger-than-normal need for consultation completion is nearly impossible due to the time and expense involved in hiring, training, and maintaining new team members.  

As such, it’s important for healthcare organizations to have a back-up plan in place to augment their teams’ reach in times of need. 

The future of the pharmacy industry 

Despite times full of challenges and adversity, a bright future lies ahead for the pharmacy industry and the pharmacists who comprise it.  

Pharmacists and AI: Working hand-in-hand  

As our President, David Medvedeff, recently published in his blog, we do not believe that AI will replace pharmacists as some have said. 

Rather, pharmacists must learn to use AI as yet another tool at their disposal. David posits that perhaps one day, it may even be malpractice for pharmacists not to use AI for its massive benefits in detecting errors and conducting analyses. Likewise, it would be equally unethical to use AI without the watchful supervision of a pharmacist to ensure that it’s doing its job as intended.  

Pharmacist flexibility  

In the future of the pharmacy industry, we can expect to see greater adoption of work models that give pharmacists the flexibility to work in ways that are most conducive for them. Platforms such as Aspen RxHealth allow pharmacists to craft their work schedules and priorities to fit around their lives, rather than the other way around as it was for countless decades before. 

Aspen RxHealth pharmacists craft their own work queue every day by choosing the patients to whom they want to deliver consultations, and the type of consultations they wish to deliver. After that, they have the autonomy to work at their own pace, dedicating as much time as necessary to give each patient the focus and attention they deserve. 

A greater role on the care team 

It’s heartening, perhaps even overdue, to see increased levels of adoption in the view that pharmacists should be recognized as healthcare providers and given the appropriate reverence. These healthcare trends show no signs of stopping as pharmacists play a key role in augmenting gaps in the healthcare team caused by provider shortages.  

Through personalized and empathetic consultations with patients, pharmacists can curate their own panel of patients over time, leading to long-term care relationships like those of us enjoy with our primary care providers. 

Considering the rates of chronic disease in the US, it’s clearer than ever that there’s a need for dedicated medication professionals to offer their expertise in medication optimization. We trust cardiologists to specialize in heart conditions and gastroenterologists to specialize in digestive issues, why not trust healthcare’s premier medication experts, pharmacists, to manage medication issues? 

Paving the way for the new frontier 

Aspen RxHealth was founded by pharmacists in 2018 to address many of the issues plaguing the industry and pharmacists themselves. We believe in a bright future where pharmacists, assisted by technology, are enabed to work more efficiently and effectively than ever before.  

Digital health tools are here to stay, and we’re proud to say that we’ve created the nation’s top digital health platform for pharmacists. By creating a marketplace comprised of health plan members in need of consultations and pharmacists ready to provide those consultations, the Aspen RxHealth platform is turning the pharmacy industry on its head. 

Gone are the days of punching a clock and overcoming high-stress working environments while attempting to manage competing priorities. Pharmacists now have the tools and support they need to empower themselves to use the full breadth and depth of their clinical education and experience, going into business for themselves. 

As a healthcare system, we now know it’s clear that pharmacists have the potential to create massive improvements in our patients’ healthcare outcomes through proactive medication management and optimization. Since we know better, it’s time to do better. 

As a health plan pharmacy leader, it’s an opportune moment to modernize your clinical pharmacy strategies. Explore innovative solutions to help your members live healthier lives, and discover how we can help bolster your team’s capabilities to become a force multiplier.