Pharmacy Chains Are Moving Into Full-Service Healthcare

(Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash)

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Get that sore throat of yours examined in aisle five. Chain pharmacies are ramping up their healthcare options beyond filling prescriptions to include testing and treatment for less serious ailments.

While more healthcare choices sound like a plus for humanity, doctors are hesitant and patients with government-sponsored insurance — the target demographic — might not even be able to use it.

Medical Deserts

Millions of Americans live in primary care deserts, and roughly 8.5% of the US had no health insurance last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even for patients with access, wait times can be lengthy and ultimately pointless. According to a 2022 survey from AMN Healthcare, the average wait time to see a family medicine physician was 21 days.

Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS are now offering convenient testing and treatment options for people with viral respiratory illnesses like strep throat, influenza, and covid, in the hopes of grabbing a bigger slice of the trillions of dollars the US annually spends on healthcare:

  • Pharmacies gained momentum during the pandemic, when the nation was desperate for testing and vaccine sites. Walmart will soon offer testing and treatment in 13 states, and CVS can evaluate symptoms and prescribe flu and cough medicines in 10 states.
  • But those services still aren’t covered by Medicaid or Medicare, so a Walmart assessment for strep could cost patients up to $165 out of pocket. The pharmacies are banking on Congress passing the Equitable Community Access to Pharmacist Services Act, which would have Medicare cover pharmacist-administered tests and treatments for common respiratory illnesses.

Doctor, Pharmacists: In a recent letter to House leaders, the American Medical Association said pharmacists don’t have the training to be doctors. AMA President James Madara cited a survey where 91% of community pharmacists said their workload was stressfully high, which has led to staffing issues and fewer hours. In a counter-argument of sorts, Walmart — the company that asked 16,000 of its pharmacists to work fewer hours and take pay cuts — has noted shortages among primary care doctors and how it will automate prescription services to allow more direct patient care. Meanwhile, Americans are stuck in the middle like a confused Larry David, struggling to decide which professional they should listen to.