For community pharmacists, cooler temperatures, school buses on the roads and Friday night football are not just signs of a changing season – they are indicators that patients will soon be seeking vaccinations for the 2023-2024 respiratory illness season.
This fall, recently FDA-approved vaccines for both COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) will be available in addition to the seasonal flu vaccine, which the CDC recommends patients receive during mid-September and October.
“We learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that access to community pharmacies is a critical factor in administering vaccines,” said Gregg Jones, Director of Clinical Programs for Cardinal Health. “We have also seen how the seasons for these respiratory illnesses can overlap – the “tripledemic” of flu, COVID-19 and RSV. As we prepare for the upcoming respiratory illness season, pharmacies will have the opportunity to recommend these vaccines to their patients and administer them in a community setting.”
The timing for these new vaccines is ideal, given patients have visited their local pharmacy for fall vaccine appointments in large numbers in recent years. A 2023 IQVIA study shows that 60-70% of all flu vaccines are administered at pharmacies during the third and fourth quarter of the year, when flu season typically begins. The study also notes that pharmacy claims for flu vaccines increased 30-40% in 2020, over 2018 and 2019 claims. Patients are getting other vaccines at their local pharmacy as well, with 40-50% of pneumococcal vaccines being administered at pharmacies during the same period, per the IQVIA study.
Pharmacies have already administered more than 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines since they were first approved in 2021, according to the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. There have been growing numbers of patients getting flu shots and other vaccines at pharmacies, and with updated COVID-19 vaccines coming to market in addition to the recently approved RSV vaccines, pharmacies are in position to expand the critical role they play in communities across the country.
“Pharmacists are critical to vaccine administration because they are widely accessible for most Americans, they rank among the most-trusted healthcare providers, and patients have become accustomed to visiting their local pharmacy for several vaccines,” said Jones. “This respiratory illness season presents expanded opportunities to further demonstrate the high-quality clinical care they can offer to patients.”
Whether a pharmacy already has a vaccine program in place or is looking to get started, certifying staff, updating existing workflows and partnering with local organizations are important steps to becoming a vaccine destination.
Ensure training and certifications are up to date
While all states allow pharmacists to administer immunizations, according to the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations, laws vary from state to state on which vaccines pharmacies can administer and whether patients need a prescription. Some states also require that pharmacies set protocols with a local healthcare provider to help ensure the pharmacy follows a set of outlined practices.
“Depending on the state, pharmacies may be required to have a standing order with a local physician or a collaborative practice agreement. In either case, Cardinal Health can help pharmacies obtain the necessary documentation required to offer immunizations,” Jones said.
Pharmacies should be sure that certificates of completion and Continuing Education (CE) statements for pharmacy-based immunization delivery training are on file. Additionally, training for CPR and bloodborne pathogens should be up to date and an exposure control plan should be in place.
To help ensure compliance with all state rules, pharmacies should compile all local regulations into a store-specific policy and procedure manual for all pharmacy staff, which should also note any vaccine reporting requirements.
Update your workflow to incorporate immunizations
It is recommended that patients get vaccinated before they become exposed to remain healthy as illnesses begin to spread. Timing is just as important for pharmacies seeking to avoid billing lag time; they need to optimize their workflow and ready their staff in advance.
“Many vaccines are billed under the medical benefit, not the pharmacy benefit. This can vary depending on the healthcare plan, and sometimes, depending on the vaccine. Having a positive working relationship with payers will help pharmacies avoid disruption, delays or lost revenue and enable them to provide a better quality of care to their patients,” said Jones. “Having that relationship in place may also open doors for more opportunities, such as disease management or wellness counseling later on.”
Promote your program and increase vaccination awareness
Despite the wave of increased RSV infections last year, most people are unfamiliar with its symptoms, according to a recently published study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. These findings demonstrate a need for pharmacies to increase awareness of their vaccination programs and expand efforts to educate their patients about the benefits of the vaccines.
“In many areas, such as rural communities, physicians may not be as accessible, and patients may not have public health clinics available. The recommendation from a pharmacist is very meaningful to these patients and can help educate them on what options are available to them, particularly with new vaccines coming into the market,” said Jones.
In addition to leveraging promotional channels – including social media, text and push notifications, and in-store marketing – partnering with another local organization, such as a large employer, church or school, to offer a vaccine clinic can help to expand the reach of a pharmacy program. Pharmacies can also review state vaccine registries to determine which of their patients may be due for a vaccine.
How Cardinal Health can help
Pharmacies have gradually expanded services over the years to become community healthcare destinations, offering a number of clinical solutions and services to patients such as testing, health screenings, medication therapy management, and smoking cessation programs. For pharmacies seeking to add immunization programs to their list of services, Cardinal Health offers services and support beyond vaccine distribution.
Through its immunization specialized care center, Cardinal Health offers resources and guidance on compliance, marketing tools, an online resource center and additional training. Cardinal Health pharmacists can also provide assistance for obtaining collaborative practice agreements and setting up successful off-site immunization programs in their community.