Bloomington, IN—Over a 14-year period from 1996 to 2010, 41 states changed statutes to allow pharmacists to provide immunizations.

Since then, the number of vaccinations provided by pharmacies has increased about six-fold, but that doesn’t necessary mean that the overall adult influenza vaccination rate in the United States has significantly risen, according to a new study published in the journal Vaccine.

By 2010, pharmacists were allowed to provide influenza vaccines to adults in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, according to the report. Yet, the fact that Americans increasingly get their flu shots at a pharmacy instead of a doctor’s office hasn’t really boosted the number of adults getting vaccinated, according to new Indiana University research.

Analyzing data from several sources, Indiana University–led researchers reached three major conclusions about trends related to pharmacy immunizations.

First, the study authors point out that pharmacists at everything from mom-and-pop drugstores to national chains are providing millions of vaccines. Between 2007 and 2013, they note, the number of vaccines dispensed in pharmacies increased from 3.2 million to 20.9 million.

Yet, while that increase is dramatic, it appears to have had little effect on the overall adult flu-vaccination rate in the U.S.

“Possibly what is happening is people who were already planning to be vaccinated are shifting their business from a doctor’s office or medical clinic to a pharmacy at Target or Walgreens,” explained co-author Coady Wing, PhD, MA, of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “One possible explanation is that pharmacies are a more convenient place for people to get what they want, which is to be vaccinated. In that sense, people who want to be vaccinated benefit from allowing pharmacy-based vaccinations.”

At the same time, according to the researchers, the increase in pharmacy-based vaccinations doesn’t appear to have significantly decreased utilization of other preventive health services. Some doctors have expressed concern that could be the case, but this study finds no data indicating a drop in routine physician office visits, Wing pointed out.

The data analyzed in the study did not address the question of whether changes in pharmacy regulations led to a decrease in medical-clinic flu or other vaccinations.

While the adult vaccination rate has remained essentially unchanged, co-author Kevin McConeghy, PharmD, MS, of the Providence, RI, Veterans Affairs Medical Center suggested that allowing pharmacists to give flu shots has been a success.

“Pharmacies are located in rural and urban areas,” McConeghy said. “You don’t need an appointment, they accept insurance plans or cash, and they operate on expanded hours relative to primary-care clinics or other vaccinators. In the end, patients are the winners, and that isn’t always the case in healthcare.”

“Pharmacists are providing millions of influenza vaccines as a consequence of immunization statutes, but we do not observe significant differences in adult influenza vaccination rates,” study authors conclude. “The main gains from pharmacy-based immunization may be in providing a more convenient way to obtain an important health service.”

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