Pharmacists are there for us when it’s time to refill our prescriptions or when we need a play-by-play on how best to take a new medication (complete with giant side effects pamphlets) — but if these are the only things you go to your pharmacist for, you’re missing out.
Even though pharmacists in the community setting wear many hats, many people aren’t entirely familiar with what those hats are, especially because each state has its own laws that dictate what a pharmacist may legally be permitted to help you with.
Before approaching your pharmacist to find out, preparation is key: Write down all of your health-related questions, as well as current medications you’re taking (including over-the-counter meds and supplements). Even if something seems irrelevant, share it with your pharmacist anyway. This gives them the fullest picture of your situation so they can provide guidance that’s as streamlined and effective as possible.
Now, onto those many hats. Below are some of the ways your pharmacist can play a vital role in your health needs:
They can help you optimize your medication schedule and plan.
It’s no secret pharmacists are the drug experts of the health care team.
“They are aware of the detailed differences among medications and have a working knowledge of disease processes, which enables them to recommend ideal therapies based on patient-specific factors,” said Dr. Michael Hegener, associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Cincinnati James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy.
They can evaluate your medication regimen for appropriateness (and create a written plan to maximize efficacy and minimize confusion), screen to prevent drug interactions, and help you simplify the management of your conditions ― say, by looking into whether it’s possible for your medications to be consolidated.
They can provide disease management education and support.
Depending on the pharmacist’s personal interests and career goals, many hold additional degrees and certifications, such as diabetes management and smoking cessation therapy, said Dr. Nancy Butler, director of K Pharmacy at digital care company K Health. (They may also hold certifications in oncology, asthma, pain, psychiatry, anticoagulation and HIV, among many others.)
This means they’re well-versed in helping you put together a personalized approach to taking care of your chronic illnesses — everything from staying on top of necessary monitoring (such as blood pressure screenings) to taking your medications and using your equipment properly.
They can recommend over-the-counter medications.
Thanks to their educational training and experience, pharmacists can recommend treatments for common medical issues that can be resolved with over-the-counter medications and non-drug therapies ― and will make sure they do it in accordance with any prescription medications and supplements you might already be taking.
“Especially during allergy season, consumers are more likely to purchase antihistamines and nasal sprays to relieve symptoms, but they might not be aware that antihistamines may react with other drugs that cause drowsiness, such as sleeping medications, antidepressants and seizure medications,” said Dr. Linda Molaka, a pharmacy manager at CVS Pharmacy in Florida.
Some medications can also cause an upset stomach if taken without food or drink, she added, so it’s important to pay attention to what you’re taking and when. “A pharmacist can help you keep track of all of it,” Molaka said.
They can look into side effects you’re experiencing.
If you’re experiencing a funky side effect and suspect it might be from one of your medications or vaccinations, let your pharmacist know.
“We can often help you figure out what may be causing it and make recommendations,” said Dr. Jamie Alan, an assistant professor in the pharmacology department at Michigan State University.
They’ll investigate whether your symptoms are related to your diagnosis, your medication or something else ― such as supplements you’re taking ― and help you find relief by providing OTC recommendations for the management of any symptoms.
“When discussing potential side effects with a patient, it’s always helpful to have a list of the current medications and supplements they’re taking, along with any known allergies they may have,” Molaka said.
If you’ve received any vaccines outside of the pharmacy you’re consulting with, it’s helpful to have those records on hand as well.
Some may be able to prescribe certain medications or diagnostic tests.
Depending on where you live, your pharmacist may be able to initiate dispensing of certain medications without you needing to schedule a physician visit, Hegener said. Over 15 states permit pharmacists to perform point-of-care testing for common infectious diseases, such as influenza and strep throat, and determine if antibiotics or antivirals are warranted. Meanwhile, roughly 19 states allow pharmacists to screen patients and initiate hormonal contraceptives for them.
Pharmacists are also able to provide naloxone, the lifesaving medication to reverse an opioid overdose, without a prescription.
“Currently, every state permits pharmacists to do this via various mechanisms,” Hegener said. “In most, all a patient or caregiver needs to do is ask a pharmacist for it.”
They can quickly recognize when you need a doctor.
If you’re having a health issue and you’re not sure whether OTC remedies are going to cut it, ask your pharmacist; they’re trained to recognize when someone needs care by a medical provider.
“We’re pretty good at knowing when you can manage your problem with OTC remedies versus when it’s best to consult with a physician,” Alan said.
They’re able to advocate for the best medication price possible.
When your insurance coverage (or lack thereof) leaves you baffled, your pharmacist can help with that too.
“If you’re prescribed a medication you can’t afford, talk to us,” Alan said. “We’re very familiar with insurance coverage and know where to send you for discount cards and coupons. If that doesn’t work, we can recommend an alternative to your provider.”
They can administer vaccines.
Immunization training is part of the academic curriculum, and most practicing pharmacists are immunizers.
“Details on exactly what vaccinations a pharmacist can administer — and age restrictions — are made on a state level,” Butler said.
Available vaccines might include flu, hepatitis A and B, HPV, polio, pneumonia, shingles, tetanus and chicken pox. (If you’re not sure which vaccines you might need, you can consult your pharmacist about that too.)
Bottom line: “As a general rule of thumb, people shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to their local pharmacist regarding anything related to their health care journey, as our qualifications span far beyond filling prescriptions,” Molaka said. “And if your needs require additional attention, we can direct you to a resource that can help.”