With a shortage of health care infrastructure, hospitals and specialty clinics in rural areas, significant health disparities exist for people in those communities. For many, the most accessible and well-positioned health care provider is the community pharmacist.

To help address this issue and provide innovative solutions, Dr. Salisa Westrick of Auburn University’s Harrison School of Pharmacy (HSOP) is collaborating with counterparts at several Sullivan Foundation partner schools to create the Rural Research Alliance of Community Pharmacies (RURAL-CP). These partner schools include the University of North Carolina, University of South Carolina and the University of Mississippi. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is participating in RURAL-CP as well.

Auburn is also a Sullivan Foundation partner school.

RURAL-CP is a network of more than 100 rural community pharmacies spanning five southeastern states and is the only network of its kind in the United States. Network members collaborate with colleges and schools of pharmacy to identify and address societal, community and professional issues that relate to medication use and pharmacy practice.

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“Prescription medications are key components of American healthcare, and pharmacists play a critical role in dispensing these medications, educating patients and ensuring patient safety,” said Westrick, Sterling Professor and department head in HSOP’s Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy. “In an area where there is no pharmacy, residents will not have timely access to prescription drugs nor access to pharmacists they can consult with when they have questions about their medications. Therefore, our work is to build strong evidence of the value and the impact of pharmacists on patient outcomes in rural communities.”

The project is headed up by Dr. Delesha Carpenter at North Carolina’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Working with Westrick at Auburn are fellow faculty members Dr. Lindsey Hohmann and Dr. Natalie Hohmann, along with students NeCall Wilson, Robert Alongi and Kavon Diggs.

(Photo by Dids from Pexel)

With more than 25 rural pharmacies already enrolled, Westrick and her team are continuing to work through the on-boarding process for network members, including a site survey and visit.

“These pharmacies and the academic institutions work together to identify and prioritize critical health concerns in rural communities,” Westrick said. “Together, we will identify and refine the solutions, assess the effectiveness and feasibility of the solutions and then disseminate the outcomes to various stakeholders.”

By joining the network, pharmacies will have access to continuing education programs and workshops addressing issues such as seasonal and non-seasonal immunizations, operations during a pandemic, naloxone counseling, medication therapy management for special populations and more.

The work in the network pharmacies will also drive multiple research projects, testing the effectiveness of certain interventions.

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“These network pharmacies will serve as demonstration sites for innovative pharmacist-led services, and the patients whom they serve can and will benefit from these interventions,” said Westrick.

Living up to Auburn’s land-grant designation, Westrick and her team are working to improve the health outcomes of Alabamians through the network. With insurance practices and low profit margins on medications making it difficult for some rural pharmacies to stay open, the program provides an opportunity for members to diversify services and find new ways to generate revenue.

“Payments to community pharmacies and pharmacists for clinical services are not common, and we hope that RURAL-CP can serve as a catalyst to change the reimbursement landscape for community pharmacists’ services and allow pharmacists to get reimbursed for clinical services they provide in their pharmacies,” Westrick said.

“It is also important to recognize that community pharmacies in rural areas are critical components of the community,” she added. “By assisting rural pharmacists and pharmacies, we ensure that Alabamians in rural areas continue to have access to their pharmacy and their trusted pharmacists.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Auburn University website.

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