Pharmacists: Uniquely qualified, yet underutilized

How these medical professionals can enhance healthcare teams

Many people rely on medications to help them lead healthier and happier lives — whether it’s a short-term course of antibiotics or ongoing treatments for chronic conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.

  • 69.0%

    Percentage of American adults aged 40-79 taking at least one prescription drug¹

So having a member of a patient’s healthcare team who is knowledgeable about medications — their efficacy, side effects, and cost — makes sense. And yet these medical professionals are often left out of the conversation about care, says Dr. Salina Wong, senior director of clinical pharmacy programs at Blue Shield of California.

Dr. Wong believes that pharmacists are valuable to include in a care team not only because of their knowledge base, but also because of their accessibility and trustworthiness.

Pharmacists offer medication expertise

Pharmacists are, first and foremost, experts in medication. Like physicians, many pharmacists complete residencies as part of their training. During their post-graduate training, pharmacists aren’t just learning about the different types of medications and their side effects: They learn how to design and implement safe, effective drug treatment plans that are patient centered.

In some states, California included, pharmacists can prescribe and adjust medications for patients. This is especially important as the demand for primary care physicians is forecast to exceed the supply by 2030.²

“Because the law in California has been built around scope of practice, we can add to the accessibility of primary care,” Dr. Wong said.

Pharmacists also learn on the job how to navigate insurance benefits and can help patients who have concerns about affordability, a critical concern that physicians may lack either the time or the experience to address.

“Pharmacists are in this very unique position of having the clinical training and also having the business and affordability side in perspective,” Dr. Wong said, “so they can support members in terms of how much out-of-pocket cost they might have to pay for their medication.”

  • Pharmacists can improve patient outcomes


    The estimated annual cost of prescription drug-related morbidity and mortality from non-optimized medication therapy³

    There are more than 310,000 pharmacists in the United States.⁴ Yet, too often, these pharmacists’ skills aren’t used, according to Dr. Wong.

    Many of these pharmacists, in addition to dispensing medications, can help patients understand how to take their medications, ensure they receive vaccinations and boosters, and provide first point-of-contact care for patients who may be experiencing side effects or even difficulties adhering to their medications.

And more than 90% of U.S. residents live within 5 miles of a pharmacy, according to the California Pharmacists Association.⁵

That accessibility to a frontline care provider can be critical, especially in rural areas or for communities with different cultural backgrounds, where a local pharmacist can provide unique insights and build trust.

“There are over 67,000 pharmacies in the United States. That’s over four times as many Starbucks that exist,” Dr. Wong said. “That means many pharmacists are underutilized. We need to activate them now. Tapping into these pharmacists’ skills will help optimize treatment regimens, and, ultimately, patient outcomes.”

Employers can help drive increased use of pharmacists

So, pharmacists can serve as trusted members of healthcare teams and help control both patient outcomes and costs. How can employers tap into this cost-effective resource?

First, employers can look for health plans where pharmacy coverage and medical coverage are more closely incorporated, encouraging communications between doctors, pharmacists, and patients. When a plan incorporates pharmacy coverage into medical coverage, patients are more likely to receive the full benefit of a pharmacist’s expertise.

Secondly, employers can help their employees take advantage of the services that pharmacists offer — starting by communicating those benefits.

Dr. Wong says: “Employers and doctors can encourage their employees and patients to take advantage of a pharmacist’s clinical services to review their medication list. The pharmacist can help them be prepared to talk to their doctor about any related healthcare needs, or even ask on their behalf.”

By reminding employees that they have access to more than just their primary care doctor or an urgent care facility to have questions answered or wellness checks performed, you can help them manage their medications and their health care — while also helping manage your own costs.

Elevate Pharmacy Care: A Blue Shield of California initiative

Blue Shield is helping lead the way to expand the scope of what pharmacists can provide through a program called Elevate Pharmacy Care.

This initiative to help empower pharmacists perform at the top of their license encourages the medical community to reimagine how quality health care can be delivered. By advocating for pharmacists to perform duties for which they are already qualified, Blue Shield helps their clients reduce costs and improve outcomes.

This will be crucial in the coming years.

“As a pharmacist, I see an urgent need to increase the pace of change,” Dr. Wong said. “In less than 20 years, medications have become far more complex. The cost of medications has skyrocketed. We need more pharmacists providing expertise, beyond filling prescriptions, to help people manage medications correctly and find ways to save money.”

1. Craig M. Hales, M.D., M.P.H., Jennifer Servais, B.Sc., Crescent B. Martin, M.P.H., M.A., and Dafna Kohen, Ph.D., M.Sc., “Prescription drug use among adults aged 40-79 in the United States and Canada,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 2019,

2. “Primary Care Workforce Projections,” Health Resource and Services Administration, August 2022,

3. Jonathan H. Watanabe, PharmD, MS, PhD, Terry McInnis, MD, MPH, and Jan D. Hirsch, PhD, “Cost of Prescription Drug–Related Morbidity and Mortality,” Sage Journals, March 26, 2018, https://

4. Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 31, 2022,

5. “Pharmacist 101,” California Pharmacists Association, last modified August 31, 2022,