A pilot in Germany encourages pharmacists to take on a more consultative role and share some responsibilities with physicians – a process supported by increasing digitalization. With doctor shortages getting more acute worldwide, the program may serve as a blueprint for countries with already overburdened health care.

Since last summer, patients in Germany have been able to to discuss medication and treatment in detail with their pharmacists, not just their doctors. As part of a pilot run by the German government and participating pharmacies, pharmacists get subsidized to carve out time and  offer a consultation similar to doctors’ – something they have been unable to do given other, mostly administrative, responsibilities.

The aim is to serve as a focal point that stores patients’ aggregate data based on which pharmacists can offer informed advice. To do that, pharmacies rely more heavily on digital tools and artificial intelligence, which frees them up from rote tasks and reduce the time otherwise spent on handling data manually.

The consultation takes place at a separate area, not at the counter, so that patients have a more private space to talk. They talk medicine, side effects, what medication may not be necessary and questions patients don’t always have the chance to ask their doctors. 

Ideally, there is one person who has everything on mind about your medication and what different doctors have prescribed, especially when they don’t communicate with each other,

says Valentin Schlieper, pharmacist at a pharmacy in Braeunlingen (near Freiburg), who is doing his PhD at Semmelweis University on how digitalization and AI can optimize workflow at pharmacies.

“To be able to do that, we need all the relevant information on the patient which can only be achieved with digitalization” – he adds.

Unlike the approach many countries have taken that have used digitalization to scale down on attendance during the pandemic, the outlets participating in the program are here to offer a more personal(ized) service. “Since it started, roughly half of our customers have taken advantage of the opportunity – usually those with several underlying conditions. The more severe a patient’s condition, the more they appreciate the chance to have someone to discuss their problems with,” – Schlieper says.  

The initiative is also an attempt to lift some of the burden off of doctors’ shoulders. Not all doctors welcome this method though, even if giving pharmacists more authority can help them share responsibility and lowers the risk of making mistakes, Schlieper says. It can also cut back on ‘waste’ medicine – medicine prescribed by different doctors only to eliminate the (side) effect of another. 

Digitalization may also reduce non-adherence stemming from forgetfulness or the need to visit the pharmacy twice when some medicine is out of stock. “Reminders sent out via text or online can improve that rate as well” – Schlieper says.

The success of this program (and similar ones) hinges on the level of digitalization just as much as doctors’ willingness to participate. Currently, some 17 pharmacies are involved in this project. The potential is big, it may even be extended to all pharmacies in Germany, Schlieper notes.

But there are other conditions to be met as well. In Germany, electronic prescription roll-out is yet to be completed. Improving communication between pharmacies and surgeries also must improve. And even then, data protection regulations may curtail the launch of a full-fledged program.

Cover photo: freepik.com; photo: Valentin Schlieper