Can Digital Pharmacy Networks Mitigate a Flu Epidemic?

Effects of influenza epidemics can be greatly reduced by extending pharmacy vaccination authority

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A new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says that in the event of an influenza epidemic, empowering pharmacies to deliver flu vaccinations could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars of expense. 

In the event of an influenza epidemic such as during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, getting enough of the population vaccinated as soon as possible is particularly important to reduce the impact of the virus. 

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These Hopkins researchers used a computer simulation model to calculate that ‘If pharmacies were fully integrated during a severe flu epidemic and extended their hours of operation, pharmacies could help prevent up to:

  • 16.5 million flu cases,
  • 145,278 deaths could be averted,
  • $1.9 billion in direct medical costs,
  • $4.1 billion in indirect costs, and.
  • $69.5 billion in societal costs could be averted.

“Pharmacies offer a potentially more convenient alternative to health clinics and hospitals to get vaccinated,” says Bruce Y. Lee, MD, MBA, executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) at the Bloomberg School, in a press release.  

“A pharmacy may be closer to you than your doctor’s office or a hospital.” 

“Moreover, if pharmacies are open later, then people have a wider window of time to get vaccinated, such as during evenings, weekends and other non-work hours.” 

This means traditional vaccination locations alone, such as doctors’ offices and hospitals, may not have the capacity or convenience to get enough people vaccinated to minimize the flu from spreading. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017, 47.8 percent, of children ages six months to 17 years and 33.8 percent of adults ages 18 to 49 received a flu shot.   

Since millions of people already get their annual flu shots at pharmacies, leveraging a pharmacy’s high-tech and high-touch market reach to contact patients during a flu epidemic could be significant. 

As an example, Walgreens says 14 million people visit the company's websites and apps each week.   

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Additionally, Walgreens’s pharmacy network reported on October 11, 2018, that they are now delivering 21.7 percent of all prescriptions. 

By combining Walgreens digital pharmacies capabilities, with their high-touch store network, a significant number of incremental flu shots could be delivered during an epidemic.   

A second example is during April 2018, McKesson’s Health Mart announced a five-year effort to enhance its national network of thousands of pharmacies with digital capabilities to better manage and schedule patient vaccination appointments.   

Results from this Hopkins study could inform public health policy and vaccination decision-makers to determine how much time, money and resources should be invested into distributing and allocating vaccines to pharmacies, prior to or during an epidemic. 

“History has shown that another flu epidemic will occur,” says Dr. Lee. “It is just a matter of when.” 

“Our study shows that when it comes to a flu epidemic, location and convenience matter a lot.” 

“Adding pharmacies as vaccination locations could end up saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars depending on the severity of the epidemic,” said Dr. Lee. 

The findings were published online October 16, 2018, in the journal Vaccine. The study was conducted with researchers at the Walgreens Center for Health & Wellbeing Research. Johns Hopkins Medicine supports the Walgreens Center for Health & Wellbeing Research through academic collaborations. 

The research was funded by the Walgreens Company, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) (R01HS023317), and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) (U24GM110707).