MADISON, WIS. — Something astonishing has happened in the past year to outpatient treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital here.
Vets regularly get next-day and even same-day appointments for primary care now, no longer waiting a month or more to see a doctor as many once did.
The reason is they don’t all see doctors. Clinical pharmacists — whose special training permits them to prescribe drugs, order lab tests, make referrals to specialists and do physical examinations — are handling more patients’ chronic care needs. That frees physicians to concentrate on new patients and others with complex needs.
A quarter of primary care appointments at the Madison hospital are now handled by clinical pharmacists since they were integrated in patient care teams in 2015. Several VA hospitals — in El Paso, Texas, and Kansas City, Mo., among them — have followed Madison’s approach and more than 36 others are considering it, according to hospital officials.
“It’s made a tremendous positive impact in improving access,” said Dr. Jean Montgomery, chief of primary care services at the Madison hospital.
That’s critical for the VA, the focus of a national scandal in 2014 after news reports revealed the Phoenix VA hospital had booked primary care appointments months in advance, schedulers falsified wait times to make them look shorter and dozens had died awaiting care. Further investigations uncovered similar problems at other VA facilities. More than two years later, tens of thousands of vets are still waiting a month or two for an appointment, according to the latest data from the VA.
The Obama administration has allowed some veterans to seek care in the private sector if they choose, but VA wait times remain long and more action is needed, the General Accountability Office reported in April.
Expanding clinical pharmacists’ role is one solution to the long delays — as efforts in California outside the VA system have shown.
They receive two more years of education than regular pharmacists and they can handle many primary care needs for patients, particularly after physicians have diagnosed their conditions.
The VA has had them for more than 20 years, but their growing involvement in patient care is more recent. This year it employs 3,185 clinical pharmacists with authority to prescribe medications, order lab tests and perform physical assessments — nearly a 50 percent increase since 2011.
“It’s having a significant impact on reducing wait times and our office is trying to expand more of them nationally to increase access,” said Heather Ourth, national clinical program manager for VA Pharmacy Benefits Management Services.
In 2015, VA clinical pharmacists wrote 1.9 million prescriptions for chronic diseases, according to a report co-authored by Ourth and published in September in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy.
A goal is to increase the use of clinical pharmacists to help patients with mental health needs and pain management.
“This helps open up appointment slots for physicians to meet patients with acute care needs,” Ourth said.
Clinical pharmacists’ authority is determined at each VA hospital based on their training and knowledge.
The Madison VA allowed clinical pharmacists to take over management of patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, participate in weekly meetings with doctors and other members of patients’ care teams and handle patients’ calls about medications.
They typically see five patients in their office each day, usually for 30 minutes each, and they talk to another 10 by telephone, said Ellina Seckel, the clinical pharmacist who led the changes at the hospital.
Many issues involve adjusting medication dosages such as insulin, which do not require a face-to-face visit. When Seckel sees patients, she often helps them lower the number of drugs they take because they may cause unnecessary complications.
Expanding clinical pharmacists’ role in primary care has cut readmission rates and helped more patients keep their diabetes under control, Seckel said.
VA hospital officials in both Madison and El Paso said they faced challenges initially in persuading doctors to delegate some duties to qualified pharmacists.
“Some physicians feel like it’s a turf war and don’t want to refer their patients because they feel the clinical pharmacist is trying to practice medicine,” said Lanre’ Obisesan, a clinical pharmacist and assistant chief of pharmacy at the El Paso VA.
Even so, the El Paso VA’s average wait time fell from two months to two weeks, he said, after it added several clinical pharmacists and gave them independence to help patients. About 30 percent of the VA patients in El Paso have used clinical pharmacists, Obisesan said.
That share will rise. The hospital now has one clinical pharmacist for every six physicians, but it aims to add more pharmacists to reduce the ratio to 1 to 3.
The Madison VA is close to that ratio now after adding four clinical pharmacist positions in the past year.
Patients there can choose whether to see a doctor or a pharmacist. With approval from primary care physicians, pharmacists took over 27 percent of the follow-up appointments for patients with chronic illnesses, Seckel said.
That shift yields benefits for both doctors and patients, said Montgomery, the head of primary care services at the Madison VA.
Many VA doctors only have time to deal with patients’ acute care issues, such as knee or back pain, with little time to focus on a patient’s multiple chronic illnesses and often a dozen or more medications they may be taking for them.
“The more we can have members of the team to do routine things that do not require a physician’s time the better the quality of the visit and the better patient outcomes,” he said.
Patients seem to like what the hospital is doing.
Stephen Howard Foster saw a clinical pharmacist recently who told him he could stop taking one heartburn medication and switched him to another medicine to reduce side effects. He said he was comfortable with the pharmacist advising him without first consulting his physician and he saved time.
“This is a good idea rather than put up with normal delays,” said Foster, 51.
Another Madison VA patient, Mike Fonger, 71, saw clinical pharmacist Anita Kashyap recently to get a blood pressure check, lab test results, a review of his medications and to change an ointment he was taking for back and shoulder pain. Kashyap also helped him ease the side effects from the cholesterol-lowering drug he takes by cutting his dosage in half.
“I like the extra attention I get here,” Fonger said.
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.