Sunday 12 June 2022

Overcoming Pharmacy Deserts and Barriers to Medication Access

Image Source: Unsplash


Pharmacies are indispensable parts of the healthcare and public health sectors – so much so that they’re officially recognized as parts of the United States critical infrastructure. However, despite their importance, pharmacies aren’t equally accessible to all U.S citizens. Pharmacy deserts — areas in which people can’t fill a prescription within a mile of their homes — are still prevalent across the country, especially in low-income areas.

By Indiana Lee

When essential medications and preventative care are out of reach, particularly for households without vehicle access, people who live in pharmacy deserts face greater health risks. This exaggerates existing health disparities between gender, class, race, and ethnicity in our society.


We’ll explore how barriers to medication access can be alleviated or overcome, as well as why pharmacy deserts exist.

Bringing Prescriptions Straight to Doors

Residents of low-income areas commonly rely on public transportation to access health services. When rail and bus lines fail to reach local pharmacies, people are often left with few options. A single mile to the pharmacy can mean a total of 45 minutes of walking, which is a big reason why pharmacy deserts present such a big problem. People in rural areas often face even longer distances that make pharmacies completely inaccessible to people who don’t own vehicles.


Mail order prescriptions and telepharmacies can play key roles in alleviating this barrier to medication access. When prescriptions can be delivered straight to patients’ doors, people in underserved communities won’t have to worry about transportation to get basic access to pharmaceutical services.


Telepharmacies must be supported by insurance providers too. If mail-order prescriptions aren’t covered by the majority of plans, people within pharmacy deserts will still struggle to access the medication they need.

Alleviating Risk for Community Pharmacies

Independent community pharmacies can be instrumental in breaking down barriers to medication and preventative care access. They tend to be more affordable and offer more community services than chains. For example, some independent pharmacies may host traveling immunization events that bring vaccines to more accessible locations.


However, pharmacy deserts are sometimes created because small business owners don’t want to risk the financial impact of liabilities — especially if their pharmacy’s financial success isn’t guaranteed.


Technology can be an effective solution. New technologies, such as automated dispensing cabinets, can increase speed and accuracy in pharmacies, therefore boosting profits while reducing risks. New operational software can offer instant alerts for potential errors or abuse.


Consumers can also play a role in reducing pharmacy deserts, too. By supporting independent pharmacies instead of chains, they can avoid unnecessary pharmacy closures and promote the longevity of businesses that prioritize the community in addition to profit.

Revamping Healthcare Policies

Underserved communities like Black and Latino neighborhoods have far more limited access to healthcare and health resources than other populations. This is because pharmacy deserts are often a byproduct of structural racism. Low reimbursement rates from Medicare and Medicaid programs, which are essential resources for residents of low-income areas, can lead to pharmacy closures and reduce the incentive for pharmacy owners to set up shop.


To eliminate these health disparities, healthcare providers, policymakers, and community groups have to work together to overcome barriers to access to pharmacies. For example, nurses can advocate for patient needs by helping policymakers identify the most pressing health disparities they’re seeing firsthand.


As healthcare policies become more supportive of underserved populations, pharmacies can thrive in their communities and enter new markets.

Increasing Health Education

Pharmacy deserts can’t immediately be overcome. Before effective policies pass, new pharmacies open, and insurance policies change, residents of underserved communities will inevitably struggle with poor access to preventative care, such as immunizations and health screenings. Without any intervention, this can take a toll on the health of people in pharmacy deserts.


Healthcare providers and community organizations can help. By educating people about the importance of preventative care, which improves long-term health and prevents medical debt, providers and nonprofits can encourage locals to take control of their personal health. Though increased preventative care education isn’t a long-term solution to pharmacy deserts by any means, it can prevent greater health-related financial pressures for low-income families.

Pharmacy Deserts Can Be Eliminated

No community can live healthily without a pharmacy that’s readily accessible. Pharmacies promote long-term health by offering preventative care services while helping patients treat medical conditions that affect their well-being. However, pharmacy deserts aren’t rare in the United States and beyond.


Policymakers, insurance providers, healthcare professionals, nonprofits, and consumers can all play a role in reducing the number of pharmacy deserts in the country. They can influence the rise of independent pharmacies that offer more community services, along with increased coverage for mail-order prescriptions. Plus, each of these groups can advocate for more supportive healthcare policies that increase accessibility for underserved communities.


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