Pharmacies have long been regarded as essential pillars of community healthcare, but a concerning trend of closures is sweeping across the nation, and a recent study led by the University of Houston’s Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine highlights the dire consequences, especially in medically underserved areas.
Dr. Omolola Adepoju, the lead author of the study and a clinical associate professor, along with her team at the Humana Integrated Health System Sciences Institute, uncovered the disproportionate impact of pharmacy closures on underserved neighborhoods, exacerbating existing health disparities. The study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, emphasizes the pressing need for targeted interventions to ensure equitable healthcare access for all individuals.
Beyond dispensing medications, pharmacies serve as vital healthcare hubs in most communities, offering a spectrum of services including crucial immunizations and medical advice. A previous study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago revealed that between 2009 and 2015, nearly 10,000 pharmacies shuttered across the U.S., with one in four pharmacies in low-income areas affected.
This trend continues as more people turn to online prescription orders and independent pharmacies face exclusion from preferred pharmacy networks. This unfortunate combination has given rise to “pharmacy deserts” in communities that require them the most. Dr. Adepoju underscores that “pharmacies have always been the frontline healthcare access points for families in medically underserved areas, but that’s going away.” In minority communities grappling with socioeconomic challenges, this absence compounds existing healthcare inequalities.
Similar to the concept of food deserts, pharmacy deserts are characterized by low-income urban neighborhoods where residents must travel more than a mile (or half a mile for those without vehicles) to access a pharmacy. In the Third Ward neighborhood of Houston, the study found that the nearest pharmacy was two miles away, a fourfold increase compared to more affluent nearby neighborhoods like Midtown, where residents had three pharmacies within a mile.
The repercussions of this added distance are profound, as highlighted by study co-author Adebosola Karunwi, a third-year medical student from Houston. Karunwi points out that individuals facing a long journey or multiple bus rides to fill essential prescriptions, such as insulin for diabetics, might opt to skip doses or crucial blood tests due to the inconvenience.
Dr. Adepoju and Karunwi believe that their study should serve as a rallying cry for collaborative action. They stress the urgency of joint efforts from policymakers, healthcare providers, and community stakeholders to ensure universal access to critical services, regardless of one’s economic status.
The researchers propose several strategies to bridge the gap in pharmacy access. They suggest forging stronger partnerships between healthcare and prescription providers, as well as identifying patients with limited access more effectively. Additionally, they call on community leaders to advocate for pharmacy expansion and to seek government funding to establish pharmacies in existing spaces like churches and community centres.
Innovative solutions are also emerging, such as hospitals leveraging services like Uber Health to deliver medications and transport patients to appointments. However, Adepoju and Karunwi argue that more comprehensive action is required. They emphasize that in the modern era, every individual should have unhindered access to the healthcare they rightly deserve. The current wave of pharmacy closures is contributing to a crisis of access in underserved communities, deepening existing healthcare disparities.
The study’s findings illuminate the urgent need for collaborative strategies to address this issue and ensure that essential healthcare services remain within reach for all members of society. By focusing not only on the economic implications of these closures but also on the broader health outcomes they entail, policymakers and communities can work together to create lasting solutions that promote equitable healthcare access.