Transforming care through pharmacy: Lessons learned from teleradiology

The mantra that healthcare has to ‘do more with less’ may be overused, but it’s also incredibly true. From navigating reimbursement challenges to caring for an aging population, hospitals must find a balance between providing high value and a lower cost of care.

As operating margins decline to less than three percent, hospitals are finding success in making better strategic use of their pharmacy departments, a pivotal area that often holds a wealth of unrealized financial and clinical promise.

The pharmacy is traditionally (and archaically) thought of as an isolated unit of the hospital, when in reality it’s one of the largest cost centers and movers of clinical outcomes. Pharmacy budgets often account for 10 to 20 percent of a hospital’s operating expense, which takes on special importance considering inpatient drug costs are currently at an all-time high, soaring 25 percent each year. And these price hikes aren’t isolated to the pharmacy – more than 90% of hospital leaders report that price hikes for inpatient drugs have had a moderate or severe effect on managing overall costs for the hospital or system. So what can hospitals do to try and gain better control of their overall finances?

Centralizing pharmacy labor across a health system is a tactic proven to significantly impact both clinical and fiscal performance within a hospital, and now it can be done virtually using cloud-based technologies. Just as teleradiology allows hospitals to optimize access to valuable radiology staff remotely, virtually pooling pharmacy workflow not only optimizes labor across the health system, it has the added benefit of freeing up more pharmacy staff to focus on high-value clinical initiatives. Teleradiology becomes a useful example of how technology can be transformative in pharmacy.

The evolution of teleradiology

Looking back, there were three main phases in the evolution of teleradiology before it became truly impactful. From the late ‘90s to the early 2000s, teleradiology was primarily focused on increasing radiology resources where they might not be available. As the Internet became faster, the technology also advanced, allowing for a more clinically focused phase. Teleradiology helped develop the notion that hospitals were not limited by geographical locations when distributing talent pools, and ensured that the radiologist with the right skill set was the one reviewing each film. Once this infrastructure was in place, hospitals began to question why they weren’t using teleradiologists all the time to optimize their processes.

Today, radiology departments continue to embrace innovation and are rapidly incorporating the latest technology, including clinical decision support tools and artificial intelligence. Following heavy outsourcing and an infusion of AI into the industry, hospitals now face the question of how to optimize in-house radiology departments for improved care. Just as with any provider in the hospital, the goal is to add clinical value through their unique skill sets and identify ways to get them more involved in patient care.

The transformation of pharmacy

Pharmacy has followed a similar journey with the advent of telepharmacy, but is quickly leapfrogging radiology in its ability to empower clinical pharmacists by taking advantage of remote services and technology. Just as teleradiology 1.0 focused on expanding access, telepharmacy was originally used to provide remote pharmacist oversight to small or rural critical access hospitals, thus enabling 24/7 pharmacy coverage.

Because telepharmacy began when technology was more advanced, the capabilities of telepharmacy today have likewise been transformed by interconnected pharmacy-centric software, making it a powerful solution for hospitals and systems of any size. Beyond providing remote services, telepharmacy principles can now be used to connect hospitals virtually, enabling load balancing of pharmacy teams across a health system. This frees up more pharmacist time to spend at the patient’s bedside, and rounding with care teams.

Rethinking Pharmacy Resources

In pharmacy 2.0, we start to see diversion from teleradiology’s lifecycle, as hospitals are using these services and technology to enhance and complement their staff pharmacists. While radiologists were beginning to feel commoditized after the widespread adoption of teleradiology, pharmacists are feeling empowered. And hospitals win as well: recognizing pharmacists’ clinical value within the hospital improves staff satisfaction and boosts patient outcomes – a recent study showed involving pharmacists in patient discharge reduced readmissions by more than half.

Optimizing pharmacy labor further ensures more pharmacist time is available to address critical clinical initiatives – such as medication reconciliation, antimicrobial stewardship, and discharge management. The resulting cost savings can be refocused to other clinical or financial programs, such as how to tackle growing drug prices.

Cloud-based technology infrastructure also allows healthcare systems to create new operating models that generate revenue. For example, a health system can easily provide remote pharmacist services to affiliated or unaffiliated hospitals in their community in order to improve the health of their community while bringing in new revenue streams.

Conclusion: Elevating Pharmacy Services for Greater Hospital-wide Impact

It’s time that hospital executives truly recognize the widespread value pharmacists bring to medication management and beyond. From labor reallocation to valuable clinical interventions, pharmacy 2.0 can fuel the empowerment of hospitals pharmacists and elevate their role in the care continuum to drive true transformation.

Brian Roberts is the CEO of PipelineRx, a technology and services company based in San Francisco, California that helps optimize and transform pharmacy—and amplify its impact on patient care. Brian has spent most of his career focused on healthcare services and telemedicine, including leadership roles at Canopy Healthcare, CHG Healthcare Services, as well as venture capital firms Acacia Venture Partners and Summit Partners.

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