The enterprise of empathy: How pharmacists can enhance efficiency by bettering the human connection

Covid-19 highlighted the value pharmacists provide in disease management and prevention, but it hasn’t been an easy road. Patients relied on their pharmacies for more services and support than before; however, the increased demand has stretched the capacity of many pharmacies. When patients don’t receive the support they need, medication adherence suffers, which directly impacts pharmacy performance. It’s a difficult cycle to break during a critical time for pharmacy business.

Pharmacies can build on the positive momentum gained during the pandemic to improve patient engagement and, relatedly, medication adherence. A familiar face close to home can help ease patients’ anxiety as they cope with a new diagnosis. Empathic support can also make a positive impact on medication adherence—a key metric for patients’ health and for pharmacy business success. But pharmacies will need an empathetic helping hand to provide this support.

The business of medication adherence

Medication adherence is one of the key indicators of pharmacy performance. Unfortunately, pharmacies have a high barrier to overcome because about half of patients do not take their medications as prescribed. This lack of adherence leads to about $500 billion in avoidable healthcare costs and contributes to up to 25% of hospitalizations each year.

Nonadherence is infrequently caused by simple forgetfulness. Patients stop or never start taking a medication for many reasons, including:

  • They can’t afford it.
  • They don’t understand the directions.
  • They don’t see the need for the medication.
  • They’re afraid of the side effects.
  • They are worried, scared, anxious, confused.

Regardless of the cause, the outcome is the same: potentially compromised patient health and lost pharmacy revenue.

Who owns the problem of adherence?

Everyone owns the problem of adherence. Understanding that adherence is a complex problem, all healthcare providers must come together to solve the problem. Tackling adherence requires a fundamental understanding of the human factors behind the problem and the solution.

Pharmacist-provided care requires empathy and genuine human connection. Practicing empathy leads to innumerable benefits for patients, including better medication adherence, fewer hospital admissions, and lower stress—the latter of which ties to numerous health improvements.

Improving patient engagement is key to improving medication adherence, and thus improving pharmacy performance and profitability. Engagement beings with prescribers who start the dialogue around the benefits and risks of a prescribed medication, the possible side effects, and the cost.

Pharmacists must continue that conversation to help ensure that patients fill prescriptions and take medications as prescribed. Given staffing shortages, it’s not an easy ask. A lower-cost, empathic support program would help fill the gap.

Another important reason to focus on patient engagement: it ties to payment for pharmacy services. The Pharmacy Quality Alliance advocates for pharmacist-provided care as part of healthcare’s shift to value-based payment models. Operating models based on financially sustainable, pharmacist-provided care lead to improved medication adherence, PQA reports.

To improve business performance, pharmacies must also focus on patient satisfaction—an important factor in retaining existing customers and acquiring new ones. Pharmacies can improve both engagement and satisfaction with a subtle shift in philosophy, from patient-centric to empathetic care.

What is empathy in pharmacy? 

Empathy is the ability or capacity to understand or feel the patient’s situation, perspectives, and feelings. In other words, it’s the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s a human connection that instills confidence and builds trust between two individuals.

Empathic care improves patient satisfaction. Here’s an example: a pharmacy customer is fuming because her prescription is delayed. The pharmacy tech understands the customer isn’t angry at her. She’s scared because she doesn’t know what will happen if she misses a dose of her medication. Rather than shut down emotionally and finish the transaction as quickly as possible, the pharmacy tech explains the reason for the delay. She relays the patient’s concerns to the pharmacist, who provides a missed medication protocol. The pharmacy tech also puts the prescription on an auto-refill plan to prevent future delays.

By practicing empathic care, pharmacies achieve better rapport with their patients, engender trust, and establish loyal customers. Loyalty manifests in a number of ways – from glowing reviews, to customer retention, new customer acquisition, higher quality ratings, and increased payment for services – all of which help booth the pharmacy’s business.

How to provide a more human experience through technology

While most pharmacies strive to provide attentive, empathic customer service, they’re also stretched thin. A recent National Pharmacy Technician Association survey found almost all (91.4%) pharmacy techs experienced burnout caused by unmanageable workloads. Another survey found most (80%) pharmacies have trouble finding pharmacists.

Technology that’s easy to implement and nonintrusive to workflow can lighten some of the load for busy pharmacies. Low-code process automation software can take on mundane repetitive tasks, including measuring medication, filling orders, inventory management, and notifying patients that their prescriptions are ready for pickup. Automating these tasks frees up staff to focus on higher-value activities, such as genuine patient communication.

Some pharmacists are using digital tools to provide supportive services to Medicare providers. Pharmacists can conduct virtual consultations to discuss new prescriptions, provide medication therapy and chronic care management, and other services “incident to” healthcare providers.

Research, however, shows that patients want to be seen, heard, and met where they are emotionally. Not “messaged” or “app’d” repeatedly, but actually heard. The very notion of health has evolved in the last few years, with a vernacular shift from “patient” to “person” as one example.

Technology can support a more meaningful human connection. Based on the data, would a patient need a follow-up call the day after she picks up her prescription? Would they appreciate a check-in call if they haven’t picked up a prescription after a few days? This type of simple check-in may open the door to deeper conversations about cost, administration, or side effects.  It may also provide the space for a patient to express their worries, concerns, or confusions about their treatment. Or it may simply trigger a patient’s memory.

Studies have shown that empathic, positive communication is associated with improved patient satisfaction and quality of life compared to usual care. An Accenture survey of nearly 1,800 patients found that the most important factor in creating a positive experience was a provider “who explains the patient’s condition and treatment clearly,” (55%) followed closely by “a provider who listens, understands patient’s needs, and provides emotional support” (52%).

Pharmacies can be instrumental in instilling positive behavior changes in the patients they serve.  Behavior is the result of our motivation, ability, and prompt.  When pharmacies engage on a human level with patient support programs, patients become more fully engaged in their treatment, leading to potentially significant health benefits. The human-to-human connection relieves patients from isolation,  gives them confidence in their recommended treatment, and ensures that humans remain first in the digital/AI age.

Empathy is Good Business

Developing meaningful relationships with patients creates an emotional bond that helps patients make lasting change—including taking their medications as prescribed. Empathy activates and moves patients from emotion to action. When that action includes more prescriptions filled and refills as directed by physicians, that’s good empathy-derived business.

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