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In Low-Income Communities, Pharmacists Can Play a Critical Role in Vaccine Access

A new study finds there are more pharmacies than physician practices in these areas; however, these inequities offer an opportunity for pharmacists to step-in and provide vaccine education and administration.

The term food desert is a way to describe areas in the inner cities and low-income communities where there is limited access to affordable or nutritious foods. Instead of having nearby supermarkets, these areas are often served by fast food restaurants and small corner stores. These “deserts” leave people without easy access to fresh produce and healthy foods options.

These same areas are often underserved by limited health care options as well, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association. The study’s investigators found that in communities with a poverty rate of at least 30 percent, the number of pharmacies was 15 percent higher than the number of physician offices.

With a dwindling number of physician practices, this can limit access to care and necessary health services such as vaccines.

“I think the data is unequivocal; lower income patients have poorer health care experiences at all aspects including access and quality of care,” Robert Popovian, PharmD, MS, chief science policy officer at the Global Healthy Living Foundation, senior health policy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and visiting health policy fellow at the Pioneer Institute, said. ”Regarding immunization, the majority of the studies demonstrate a strong correlation between higher income levels and higher immunizations. We also know that minorities are over representing low-income communities.” 

Although these inequities exist, the silver lining may come in the form of the pharmacies and pharmacists who are serving these communities.

For their study, Popovian and his fellow study investigators assessed the number of hours of pharmacies vs physician practices and the ability to offer vaccines for seniors on Medicare Part D. They found the former offered greater hours to provide vaccines. “Pharmacies can play an invaluable role in expanding immunization access.”

Still, Popovian acknowledges the need for physician services within these communities and points to the example of a local hybrid pharmacy and health center in one low-income neighborhood in Southern Los Angeles, which was built by the University of Southern California.

Contagion spoke to Popovian who offered insights into his study, discussed incentives to reduce inequities, and how the hybrid pharmacy and health center serves as an example of overcoming these inequities.