When COVID-19 forced the shutdown of doctors’ offices across the country last spring, community pharmacies remained open — and pharmacists stepped up, taking on more patient counseling, immunizations and testing. And as COVID-19 vaccines have become more widely available, pharmacies — and pharmacists — have played a critical role in their distribution.

“Society is realizing that pharmacies are literally saving the world with immunizations,” notes Scott Knoer, CEO of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA). “The access point of the community pharmacy is very significant.” 

The medical marketing community has finally taken notice. While pharmacists have long been an important audience, their increasing responsibilities and rising profile as healthcare providers have made them an even more crucial group for marketers to reach, not to mention busier than ever before.

The resulting shift has prompted marketers to experiment with new channels as they try to cut through the noise. As they do so, questions have emerged as to whether pharmacists’ expanded scope of care, and subsequent increase in contact with patients, will outlast the current crisis. Either way, many consumers are unlikely to ever again view their local chain pharmacy as a mere convenient destination for M&M’s and paper towels. 

Even before the pandemic, the role of the friendly neighborhood pharmacist had been growing, according to John Beckner, senior director of strategic initiatives at the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA). “Over the last four or five years, pharmacists have become more involved in counseling and helping patients manage their medication effectively,” Beckner explains. “The pandemic has served to accelerate that.”

Pharmacies are highly accessible, particularly in underserved and more rural communities whose members might not have their own physician. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90% of Americans live within five miles of a community pharmacy. They visit their local pharmacist 12 times more frequently than their primary care provider.

During the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services expanded pharmacists’ legal scope of practice, issuing emergency authorizations allowing pharmacists to order and administer COVID-19 tests and administer recommended vaccinations to children aged 3 to 18.

Vaishali Mokashi, SVP of strategy and planning at Publicis Health Media, notes that during the pandemic her clients have seen a rise in new-to-brand prescriptions written at pharmacies, as opposed to doctor’s offices. “With all the closures, a lot of the conversations that were happening in doctors’ offices are happening on the pharmacy floor,” she says. 

Mayank Amin, the owner of Skippack Pharmacy in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, has made national news for his robust vaccination program (and for occasionally dressing as Superman to deliver doses to housebound patients). “The general thought of the pharmacist prior to the pandemic was somebody who stands behind the counter and counts pills,” he says.

But during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Amin adds, “The CDC has recognized that pharmacies are a great channel for these vaccines to get out into the mass population, while also having a healthcare professional that knows what to do in case the person has an allergic reaction, and who also might know about the medications they take. It’s an opportunity for someone with a wholesome idea of that patient’s health and their conditions and medications to be a part of that decision-making tree.”

As with everything else in the world, the pandemic has forced pharma marketers to shift to a digital-first approach. But simply pivoting to digital, as the expression goes, is not enough. They have to find creative ways to cut through the noise and catch the attention of incredibly busy pharmacists.

“With the COVID vaccine and everything else, pharmacists’ time is so limited,” Amin says. “It’s hard to be able to have a 10-to-15 minute conversation with anybody.”

Mokashi says client priorities have adapted to these challenges, especially among critical medications and medicines for chronic conditions. In those categories, she notes, “We saw some of our clients shifting budgets from print to digital because people needed quick bites of information when they needed it.”

This, in turn, drove the inclusion in client plans of new ad formats, such as those available in mobile gaming — which saw an increase in users and time spent during the pandemic. “We wanted to capture healthcare professionals during their blue-jean moments, especially pharmacists and pharmacy assistants who tend to skew younger,” Mokashi continues. “We are seeing receptivity shift toward digital. What clients were trying to do for 10 years, COVID did in 10 days.”  

Clients also had to adjust the type of information they provided to pharmacists to meet the unique challenges of the pandemic. “Pharma companies needed to quickly put out information in terms of which drugs can interact with their drugs, and what impact could that have on COVID,” Mokashi says. “We had to pivot very quickly with that, and be mindful of what information is needed right now.”

Johanna Tompetrini, EVP and group client director at CMI Media Group, agrees, adding that the pandemic motivated her clients to increase the frequency of messaging “in anticipation of increased counseling” and place a greater emphasis on social media to meet pharmacists where they are. According to a CMI survey of 101 pharmacists conducted last year, there was a 52% increase in respondents who said they used social media to access clinical trial data and a 41% increase in those who said they used social to communicate with patients in 2020, versus the year-ago period.

Based on this data, CMI recently engineered a paid, unbranded campaign on LinkedIn to promote a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccine among pharmacists. Through message ads and sponsored content placements focused on CDC vaccination recommendations and immunization rates — as well as target segments that included the brand’s list of pharmacists, verified pharmacists from a third-party data provider and LinkedIn’s first-party data — the campaign exceeded click-through rates and open-rate benchmarks.

Beyond the pandemic, “We will continue to take a multichannel approach to deliver messages to pharmacists and focus on increased personalization as technology continues to advance to enable one-to-one targeting,” Tompetrini wrote in response to emailed questions. 

Amin puts it more bluntly: “The days of just reading off a pamphlet are gone.” 

Tomorrow’s pharmacists

It’s difficult to predict the long-term impacts of a crisis from its midst, but there are several past and present indicators that hint at what the pandemic might mean for pharmacists in the future. Mokashi, an avid reader of tea leaves from technology companies, predicts that tech’s current focus on preventative care — giants such as Apple and buzzy startups alike have skin in the game — could mean that pharmacists’ roles will continue to expand.

“Pharmacists sit at that intersection of preventative and treatment,” she says. “As more data comes in and preventative starts becoming bigger and bigger, I feel that pharmacists’ roles will also become stronger and stronger. They are the ones who are going to be the counselors in the moment.” 

And if telehealth continues to play a key role in healthcare delivery, pharmacists will also retain an in-person advantage. “We hear all the time that the human touch is missed,” Mokashi adds. “And in a way, the pharmacist is the human touch now.” 

Of course, community pharmacists and their advocates, such as NCPA’s Beckner and APhA’s Knoer, hope and believe that pharmacists’ expanded role as care providers will outlast the pandemic. As Knoer points out, the Association of American Medical Colleagues projects that the U.S. will face a shortage of up to 139,000 physicians by 2033.

“We need more people providing healthcare,” he says. “And with pharmacists having an expanded role, they improve care and reduce costs.” 

A past pandemic can also provide some clues to the eventual outcomes of our current one. During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, pharmacists nationwide were similarly granted emergency authorization to administer vaccines. Then, in the years that followed, many state legislators expanded pharmacists’ scope of practice in other areas of public health, such as allowing them to distribute naloxone directly to patients at risk of an opioid overdose.

If the past is any indication, the changes sparked by COVID-19 may very well lay the foundation for more fundamental shifts in pharmacists’ scope of care and influence. As Mokashi sees it, this shift is already underway. “We always talked about pharmacists as being a key stakeholder, but now they’re acknowledged as a decision-maker.”