Baltimore, MD—In the next influenza epidemic, pharmacists should be fighting on the front lines to save thousands of lives and billions of dollars, according to a new study.

The report, published online in the journal Vaccine, points out that in a novel event such as the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, physician offices and hospitals are unlikely to have the capacity to vaccinate enough Americans.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers used a computer simulation model to determine that adding pharmacies as locations to dispense flu vaccinations during a mild epidemic averted up to 17.1 million symptomatic cases and prevented up to 104,761 deaths.

In addition, the study team calculated that using pharmacists to vaccinate during a mild epidemic saved $1 billion in direct medical costs, $49.3 billion in productivity losses, and up to $50.3 billion in societal costs, defined as direct medical and indirect costs combined.

If the epidemic was severe, the effect appeared even more dramatic—averting up to 23.7 million symptomatic cases, preventing up to 210,228 deaths, and saving $2.8 billion in direct medical costs, $97.1 billion in productivity losses, and $99.8 billion in overall costs.

Expanding pharmacy hours multiplied the effect, according to study authors.

“Pharmacies offer a potentially more convenient alternative to health clinics and hospitals to get vaccinated,” explained coauthor Bruce Y. Lee, MD, MBA, executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) at the Bloomberg School. “A pharmacy may be closer to you than your doctor’s office or a hospital. Moreover, if pharmacies are open later, then people have a wider window of time to get vaccinated, such as during evenings, weekends and other non-work hours.”    

The study, supported by the Walgreens Center for Health & Wellbeing Research, noted that four influenza pandemics have caused significant morbidity and mortality globally. Although, as of 2009, pharmacists in every U.S. state were trained to vaccinate in some capacity and nearly 86% of the population lived within 5 miles of a pharmacy, only 28.2% of adults and 4.9% of children received their seasonal influenza vaccine from a pharmacy in 2017, the article notes.

The detailed computer model of the United States simulated different flu epidemics to demonstrate the costs and health effects of better utilizing pharmacies, in addition to traditional locations that provide vaccinations. Six types of vaccination locations—hospitals, urgent care centers, physician offices, and pharmacies—were included in the model.

“Our study shows that dispensing flu vaccines at pharmacies in addition to traditional locations can save third-party payers like insurance companies and Medicare billions of dollars and save businesses billions in productivity losses,” added lead author Sarah M. Bartsch, MPH, of the GOPC faculty.

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