For many people living in rural areas, access to pharmacy services is difficult. The University of Iowa’s Rural Policy Research Institute Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis reports that more than 16% of the independently owned rural pharmacies in the US closed between March 2003 and March 2018, lowering the number to fewer than 6,400. In 630 of these communities, the closure of their independent pharmacy left them with no pharmacy at all. 

Add other barriers, such as lack of transportation, inclement weather, limited mobility, or chronic health conditions, and a trip to the pharmacy or hospital is even more challenging.  

Telepharmacy May Open Paths to New Business Models

Many of the hardships facing all pharmacies hit rural pharmacies harder, such as negotiating reimbursement rates with insurers and the expense of maintaining stock of certain medications. Plus, recruiting staff is tricky because metropolitan areas typically provide pharmacists more career opportunities and more lucrative wages. 

However, recent data suggests the pace of closures is slowing, in part because rural pharmacists are finding new business models and embracing new technologies.  

For example, the North Dakota Telepharmacy Project allows pharmacists to provide services to residents at long distances. This project, active since the early 2000s, includes 94 pharmacies (32 central pharmacies and 62 remote telepharmacy sites). About 80,000 people have had their pharmacy services restored, retained, or established through the project, which has also added $26.5 million in local economic development, according to North Dakota State University.  

Also, telepharmacy and telehealth continue to be popular after a huge boost from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the NABP 2022 Survey of Pharmacy Law, about half of US states authorize retail (outpatient) telepharmacy services. In other states, telepharmacy authorization is under review. 

NABP and the Boards of Pharmacy Explore Improvements  

Although not exclusively focused on rural pharmacies, we partner with the boards of pharmacy to continuously monitor developments impacting access to telehealth pharmacy services. In October 2016, the Task Force on Telepharmacy Practice convened in accordance with a resolution passed at the 112th Annual Meeting. As recommended by the task force, we reviewed the regulation of telepharmacy practices occurring between pharmacies and medical clinics or other facilities that are not board-regulated. Also, we implemented the task force’s recommended changes to language in NABP’s Model Act, which included amending the definitions of telepharmacy practice and technologies. This language was further amended by the Committee on Law Enforcement/Legislation in 2017. Additionally, we continue to collaborate with regulators and practitioners in practice settings other than pharmacies to track telehealth trends in this post-pandemic era. 

This article was adapted from the February 2022 edition of Innovations.