When Reyna or Justin Ansley or one of their three kids feels sick and needs to be tested for strep throat or flu, there's a good chance they'll head to their local pharmacy in Hemingford or Alliance, Nebraska. Dave Randolph, the proprietor of both locations of Dave's Pharmacy, can do a rapid test, give them medicine if they need it, and send them on their way.
"I'm a cattle rancher," said Reyna Ansley, whose family lives about 15 miles outside Hemingford. "You don't necessarily have the time to drive to the doctor and sit in the waiting room. It's really quicker through Dave."
The Ansleys don't have health insurance and using the pharmacy, where Randolph charges $50 to $60 to do the tests, is cheaper than paying up to $200 for an office visit with a local doctor, Ansley said. If the test is positive, the medications generally cost $20 to $30.
Randolph's ability to provide treatments for flu and strep throat is somewhat unusual. He can do so in Nebraska because he has an annual collaborative practice agreement with a local doctor that is subject to state approval.
The easy availability of pharmacists also helped propel them into a key role during the pandemic as they became a go-to resource for covid-19 testing and vaccines. Yet even before covid engulfed the country, many states were giving pharmacists a bigger role in consumers' health.
According to the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations, more than a dozen states have expanded what pharmacists can do to include testing and treating people for illnesses such as strep throat, flu, and urinary tract infections and preventing HIV. Some states allow pharmacists to prescribe oral contraceptives or drugs to help people quit smoking. Typically, pharmacists have prescribing authority under agreements with doctors or rules called statewide protocols.
But a limited number of states have gone further, allowing pharmacists to prescribe medications on their own to treat a broad range of conditions for which there are rapid point-of-care tests, if it's appropriate based on clinical guidelines.
"We're seeing more states looking at direct prescribing authority now as opposed to collaborative practice agreements," said Allie Jo Shipman, director of state policy at the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations. The alliance offers point-of-care testing and point-of-care treating training programs for pharmacists and pharmacy students.
The Biden administration, which has leaned on pharmacies to help battle the covid pandemic by administering vaccines and tests, is now calling for a limited number of pharmacies with retail clinics that employ doctors or other health care workers with prescribing authority to directly provide medication rapidly to people who test positive for the virus. The "test-to-treat" program is designed to make sure that people with covid get a course of antiviral medication quickly because it is most effective if used within five days of when someone shows symptoms.
Pharmacists say their expanded efforts on covid have helped raise their profile.
"One of the big things that came out of covid is that consumers understand that pharmacies do offer these services that are high-quality and convenient and support their health," said B. Douglas Hoey, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents the interests of independent pharmacists.
But physicians don't necessarily welcome this development. Doctor groups have long objected to the taking on of certain types of patient care by pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other nondoctors unless it is overseen by or approved by physicians.
In November, the American Medical Association, which represents doctors, announced that since 2019, it had successfully opposed more than 100 legislative actions that would have expanded nonphysicians' scope of practice, called scope creep. The group also issued a statement criticizing the Biden administration's plan to allow pharmacy-based clinics to prescribe covid antiviral medications, saying that the program poses a danger to patient safety and risks negative health outcomes. And the AMA unsuccessfully opposed a federal decision to let pharmacists give covid vaccines to children younger than 18.
Meanwhile, the American College of Physicians, which represents internists, announced it "opposes independent pharmacist prescriptive privileges and initiation of drug therapy outside of a collective practice agreement, physician standing order or supervision, or similar arrangement."
The AMA didn't respond to questions about independent pharmacist prescribing, and the ACP declined to comment on its policy.
But are physicians correct that patient safety is at risk if a doctor isn't involved in prescribing decisions? Pharmacists say that they want to provide care in line with their training and skills and that they know their limits. And they note that timely prescribing is vital for treating covid and other infectious diseases.
They also note that pharmacists are increasingly part of the multidisciplinary clinical teams that direct patient care at hospitals and in health care systems.
"Pharmacists are the professionals that are the most trained to deal with drug interactions," said Rita Jew, a pharmacist who is president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a nonprofit that focuses on preventing medication errors. "We monitor patients for both efficacy and side effects. So from that perspective, it's not a safety concern. Delay in treatment is a concern."
Many pharmacists are eager to expand their menu of patient services, but payment remains a problem. Pharmacists aren't generally recognized as service providers under Medicare and don't typically receive payment when they spend time evaluating, testing, or treating patients. Many private insurers follow Medicare's lead on payment.
For many people, pharmacies are convenient and familiar. More than 90% of people in the United States live within 5 miles of a community pharmacy, and Medicare beneficiaries visit the pharmacy nearly twice as often as they do their primary care physician.
Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a general surgeon and a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote a recent blog post suggesting that doctors who object to nonphysician prescribing may be more worried about competition than patient safety.
"Rather than work to prevent laws that could meet the needs of patients, the onus is on the profession to persuade people that they need to see a doctor," Singer said in an interview, adding that he has relied on pharmacists' expertise in his practice. "I ask them, 'Is there any particular problem with this drug?' They have the software. And that's what they're trained to do."
In Arkansas, a 2021 law gave pharmacists the authority to treat conditions for which there are point-of-care tests, as long as they follow statewide protocols established by the state board of pharmacy and the state medical board.
"There are myriad tests that are on the market now that are quick and inexpensive and that can really increase access dramatically for folks who don't have time or resources to go to a primary care provider," said Scott Pace, a pharmacist and co-owner of Kavanaugh Pharmacy in Little Rock, Arkansas.
But pharmacists aren't interested in replacing physicians, said Shipman. "We want to come alongside physicians," she said. "We want to be another health care provider. In the middle of the pandemic, we need more help. The burden is too great to be carried by any one provider."
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.