Lest anyone think that pharmacists do little more than dispense prescriptions, a new study from Columbia University dispels the notion, and then some. Pharmacists will figure more centrally in healthcare, stepping into roles previously held by primary care physicians and other healthcare providers, researchers say.

The report, conducted by Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in conjunction with Express Scripts Pharmacy, reflects a survey of more than 3,000 patients and 1,000 providers examining how the role of pharmacists is changing in the industry.

Amid pandemic demands and physician shortages, pharmacists will see their roles in patient care and engagement increase, the report concluded.

“Patients, prescribers and pharmacists have a high degree of confidence and trust that the role of the pharmacist is expanding,” said Susan Peppers, chief pharmacist at Express Scripts Pharmacy. “They do more than dispense medications.”

Seventy-seven percent of patients surveyed said pharmacists were an integral part of their care team. The researchers also found that 62% of providers agreed that pharmacists will soon have access to patients’ electronic medical records, further streamlining patient care.

Their enhanced involvement in care comes at an opportune time. Along with the aging population of boomers and strain from the pandemic, the healthcare system may face a shortage of physicians in coming years. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the US could experience a deficit of 37,800 to 124,000 doctors by 2034.

Pharmacists already play an integral part in the healthcare system beyond dispensing meds. According to Todd Eury, who hosts the Pharmacy Podcast Network, they are integral in medication management, especially for nursing home populations. Pharmacists have also been essential frontline workers during the pandemic and the vaccination effort (to the extent that drugstores are now experiencing staff shortages and burnout).

According to Peppers, that’s just scratching the surface.

“They can also take on increased patient counseling, prescribing and disease management,” she explained. “We’ve already seen several states that allow pharmacists to prescribe, and to prescribe under collaborative practice agreements. Those are the types of expanded roles that we’ll see in the future.”

Another positive takeaway from pharmacists’ role expansion, Peppers said, is their ability to improve health outcomes.

“There’s a link to better health outcomes when pharmacists get involved with patient counseling, intervene with chronic disease management and care,” Peppers explained, pointing to research done by Express Scripts Pharmacy. “When we think about expanded roles and expanded accessibility, particularly in rural or urban areas where accessibility to primary care will be lower, we know the pharmacists can step in and provide needed information to patients.”

Healthcare marketers can begin centering pharmacists in communication efforts, Peppers said, and reinforcing the role they can play in counseling, prescribing and disease management.

“When we talk about seeking health advice, we often say, ‘Ask your doctor or your prescriber,’ but it’s important to make sure that we include, ‘Check with your pharmacist or ask your pharmacist,’” she added. “Including that frontline healthcare provider in your communication and marketing efforts will go a long way to unlocking the knowledge patients can access from pharmacists.”