Los Angeles—Are so-called pharmacy deserts helping to contribute to racial and ethnic health disparities?

A report in Health Affairs notes that Black and Latino neighborhoods in the 30 most populous U.S. cities had fewer pharmacies than white or diverse neighborhoods in 2007-2015,

University of Southern California–led researchers point out that pharmacies are increasingly vital points of care for essential health services. Not only do they fill prescriptions, according to the authors, but pharmacists dispense emergency doses of naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses, contraceptives to prevent unplanned pregnancy, and COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

“The accessibility of pharmacies may be an overlooked contributor to persistent racial and ethnic disparities in the use of prescription medications and essential health care services within urban areas in the US,” according to the study.

Researchers write that pharmacy deserts are more common in black and Hispanic neighborhoods than in white or diverse ones. Disparities were most pronounced in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Dallas, Boston, and Albuquerque.

“We also found that Black and Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods were more likely to experience pharmacy closures compared with other neighborhoods,” the authors note. “Our findings suggest that efforts to increase access to medications and essential health care services, including in response to COVID-19, should consider policies that ensure equitable pharmacy accessibility across neighborhoods in US cities.”

“We focused on cities because of racial/ethnic residential segregation and the fact that more than 80% of the Black and Latino population in the U.S. live in cities,” explained senior author Dima Mazen Qato. “Our findings suggest that addressing disparities in geographic access to pharmacies—including pharmacy closures—is imperative to improving access to essential medications and other health care services in segregated minority neighborhoods.”

Neighborhoods where the average distance to the nearest pharmacy was 1.0 mile or more were classified as pharmacy deserts. In neighborhoods that were low income and had at least 100 households with no vehicle, the qualifying distance dropped to 1/2 mile or more, to account for transportation barriers.

Jenny S. Guadamuz, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral fellow at USC, adds, “One in three neighborhoods throughout these cities were pharmacy deserts, affecting nearly 15 million people.”

While fewer than 10% of neighborhoods met the definition of pharmacy deserts in New York and Philadelphia, more than 60% of neighborhoods in Indianapolis, Indiana; San Antonio, Texas; and Charlotte, North Carolina were deemed pharmacy deserts.

The most pronounced disparities were identified in Chicago, where 1% of white neighborhoods were pharmacy deserts versus 33% of Black neighborhoods in the South Side neighborhoods of Chatham, West Pullman, and Greater Grand Crossing, Dr. Guadamuz added.

Researchers urge policies to encourage pharmacies to locate in pharmacy deserts, including increases to Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates for pharmacies most at risk for closure.

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.