Rural pharmacy screening for chronic disease

  • The in-store pharmacy screening program promotion at Soul Pattison Chemist in Deniliquin which was one of the 11 participating pharmacies in the screening pilot

The in-store pharmacy screening program promotion in Deniliquin, NSW 

A recent pharmacy pilot in the Murrumbidgee region of New South Wales has seen promising results in identifying early symptoms of chronic disease and is being expanded.

For many rural Australian communities, pharmacists are trusted and accessible primary healthcare professionals, with patients often visiting their pharmacy for symptom management before their doctor. It makes pharmacists uniquely positioned to identify patients presenting with early symptoms of chronic disease.

The Murrumbidgee region, in southwest New South Wales, boasts a population of more than 250,000 people, and has the second highest rate of potentially preventable hospitalisations for treatment of people living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Congestive Heart Failure (CHF).

Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network (MPHN) Acting CEO Narelle Mills said the issue required a fresh approach with the aim to reduce these hospitalisations.

“The Living Well, Your Way program was established in 2019 as a joint initiative between MPHN and Murrumbidgee Local Health District and is funded by NSW Health under Collaborative Commissioning. The aim of the program is to better care for people with COPD and CHF in the community and to keep them out of hospital and living well at home,” Ms Mills said.

“The system changes the Living Well, Your Way program are making across the Murrumbidgee are various, but one in particular is a pharmacy screening program supporting those people at risk of developing CHF and COPD.”

The COPD and CHF Pharmacy Screening Pilot identifies at risk patients and links them with their general practitioner (GP) for assessment and diagnosis to improve health outcomes and reduce the rate of hospitalisations.

The pilot ended in April 2024 with 11 pharmacies participating across the region. Living Well, Your Way Community Pharmacist Kym Ramsey said the feedback from his peers has been inspiring.

“Pharmacists are reporting being able to seamlessly add screening to their current workflow model by identifying at risk patients using other funded programs such as immunisations, MedsChecks, and home medication reviews,” Mr Ramsey said.

However, patient stories demonstrate the real value in the program.

“A 79-year-old woman who previously smoked and presented to the pharmacy with shortness of breath, swollen ankles/feet and fatigue was identified by the pharmacist for COPD and CHF screening. The results triggered a GP referral who referred her to a respiratory physician for further assessment,” Mr Ramsey said.

“Through this early intervention she is more likely to manage her symptoms at home and reduces her risk of hospitalisation and further complications.”

Key to the pilot’s success was involving GPs and pharmacists to codesign screening tools, workflow, and referral processes.

“On presentation to a pharmacy, patients identified as potentially at risk are invited to be screened. Screening utilises a codesigned questionnaire and may include micro spirometry for COPD. Those shown to be at increased risk are referred to their nominated GP for further assessment and possible early diagnosis, improving their long-term health outcomes,” Mr Ramsey explains.

“Throughout the pilot, pharmacists were provided with resources, tools and education around identifying and supporting patients with COPD and CHF”. 

Pharmacy poster
Pharmacy poster

It’s an exciting time for the Living Well, Your Way program and Narelle Mills is keen to see how innovative programs like pharmacy screening can contribute more broadly to the Australian healthcare system.

“The Pharmacy Screening program is examining whether this style of innovative approach of utilising pharmacists in chronic disease identification in rural areas and timely referral to GPs can have an impact on reducing hospitalisations and costs to the health system,” Ms Mills said.

For more information about the Pharmacy Screening Program and the Living Well, Your Way initiative visit livingwellyourway.org.au.

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