Guest Post: The Underutilization of Prevention

Robert Popovian, Pharm.D., MS.

One of the most underutilized ways to reduce medical costs in the U.S. is health care prevention. Unfortunately, politicians choose instead to implement draconian policies such as price controls or utilization management, which focus solely on cost management without any consideration given to patient outcomes or the value of an intervention to society.

The reason policymakers promote these types of measures is twofold. One, these policies are simple to implement and two, they reach their intended results quickly by reducing budgets, whether it be hospital costs or drug expenditures. On the other hand, promotion of preventative measures are complicated and challenging to implement and are thus ignored, despite the fact that the data show that such measures lead to better patient outcomes, including improvements in quality of life and productivity.

The two examples of preventative interventions that have not only shown to reduce costs but also improve outcomes are improving immunization rates and medication adherence.

Vaccines are one of the most cost-beneficial interventions in health care. In the U.S., we have done a great job ensuring our children are protected from various communicable diseases. Vaccination rates for most serious ailments are in the 90th percentile for children. However, the same cannot be said when it comes to adults, as their vaccination rates are abysmal. For example, less than 50% of adults get a flu shot every year.  What’s even more alarming is that approximately 20% of high-risk patients (e.g., patients suffering from lung disease) receive a pneumococcal vaccine. Both measures are well below the Healthy 2020 targets set by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP).

One approach to encourage adult vaccination is to further expand community-based pharmacist immunization capabilities. The evidence is clear that allowing pharmacists to provide vaccinations is the lowest cost alternative for providing this essential public health service. So it is vital that we expand and harmonize state laws governing pharmacist authority to immunize and to allow pharmacists to administer all Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved and Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended vaccines.

The second example of a cost-saving preventative intervention is medication adherence. One of the most cost-effective ways to improve patient adherence is through pharmacist-led medication synchronization. Medication synchronization is a service that has been offered for the past several years by pharmacists to patients who take multiple chronic medications.

A pharmacist collaborating with a physician and in consultation with the patient ensures that all of the patient’s medications are refilled on the same day. Pharmacists operationalize the concept by making an appointment with a patient to pick up their prescriptions every month, or at 60 or 90 days — depending on the refill schedule — and to discuss other issues pertinent to their care, such as over-the-counter medicine usage, smoking cessation needs or vaccination requirements. Medication synchronization has not only reduced the number of trips a patient has to take to the pharmacy and lessened the administrative burden for pharmacists and physicians, but most importantly it has led to better patient medication adherence and cost savings overall.

In 2014, for example, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) decided that patients enrolled in Medicare Part D plans should have the opportunity to synchronize their medications if they choose to and if it is deemed appropriate by their pharmacist or physician, not only because it improved adherence but also because of the overall health care cost reductions. In their analysis, CMS stated, “while the estimated total 6-year cost of this rule to Part D sponsors is $0.5 million, the savings to Part D sponsors and beneficiaries is $1.8 billion.” More recently, a research article published in Health Affairs suggested that patients with cardiovascular disease whose medications were synchronized were three times more adherent with their medications leading to 9% lower hospitalization and emergency department visits.

Fortunately, most states except for California and a handful of smaller ones have taken the lead from CMS to allow all patients in need to benefit from medication synchronization. It is now up to the pharmacists to offer this service universally to their patients.

No one denies that saving health care costs is a noble cause, and everyone agrees that it is not an easy task. However, policymakers are only focusing on the side of the ledger marked “cost”.  Instead, they should be implementing policies that guide us towards the goal of disease prevention to achieve the ultimate endpoint of reducing health care costs while improving patient outcomes.

Robert Popovian is Vice President of U.S. Government Relations at Pfizer