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Telepharmacy Fills Pharmacy Service Gap in Rural Idaho

Pharmaceutical technicians and ISU pharmacy residents fill prescriptions at Bengal Pharmacy in Challis, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Idaho State University.

Telepharmacy Fills Pharmacy Service Gap in Rural Idaho

Today we are highlighting the work of Dr. Rex Force and his team at the Idaho State University Foundation to create Idaho’s first full-service telepharmacies. Dr. Force is a steering committee member for the Institute of Translational Health Sciences’ WWAMI region Practice and Research Network (WPRN) and faculty for the ITHS Regional Translational Scholar program. “Creating a new avenue to reach rural and underserved populations, which is a focus of the WPRN, providing real-world learning and research opportunities for pharmacy residents, and improving access to quality healthcare for Idaho communities are the major goals of the program,” says Dr. Force, Associate Dean of Research for the Division of Health Services at Idaho State University.

Dr. Rex Force

Dr. Rex Force

Residents of two rural Idaho towns have access to pharmacy services thanks to Dr. Force and his team.

When the only pharmacist in Arco, Idaho retired last year, there was no one to take his place. To fill prescriptions, residents would have to drive over an hour each way to reach the nearest pharmacy.

Arco is one of 490 communities in the US that lost their only pharmacy between 2003 and 2013. Retirements, financial pressures, and a lack of pharmacists to provide services have led to the decline in pharmacies in rural areas.

As pharmacies close, residents of rural communities, who tend to be older with more chronic illnesses, have to travel farther and longer to have prescriptions filled.

Bridging the Gap with Technology
Facing a potential gap in pharmacy services, the Lost Rivers Medical Center in Arco began working with Bengal Pharmacy, LLC, owned by the ISU Foundation, to find a solution.

Their collaboration led to Idaho’s first-ever full-service telepharmacy, the Bengal Pharmacy at Lost Rivers, which opened in June 2014. Thirteen months later, a second Bengal Pharmacy, LLC, telepharmacy was opened in Challis, Idaho when the town’s only pharmacy closed.

“Individuals living in rural western communities tend to be quite elderly, just the folks that need access to health care the most. Having local access to pharmacy services keeps patients in town,” says Force.

How Telepharmacies Operate
The system functions much like Skype, using audio-video conferencing equipment to connect the remote site with the ISU campus. The telepharmacy staffs pharmaceutical technicians and ISU pharmacy residents in Arco and Lost Rivers, who are supervised by a pharmacist at the Bengal Pharmacy on the ISU campus via the conferencing equipment.

Clients can fill prescriptions that are written or called in from outside the telepharmacy. The pharmacy technician prepares the prescription for dispensing, enters prescription and patient information into the system and fills the medication vial. The pharmacist supervises and interacts with the tech in real-time via the two-way conferencing equipment. Once the pharmacist has reviewed the prepared prescription, the pharmacist gives the tech approval to dispense the medication to the patient.

Clients can also have private consultations with pharmacists using the equipment.

“The economic realities are that profit margins in community pharmacies are razor thin,” explained Force. “Telepharmacy provides a viable model for these rural communities. Our next step is to remotely provide clinical pharmacy services to rural clinics and critical access hospitals. Our hope is that these programs will improve medication use, collaborative care, and patient outcomes.”