Is the Pharmacy a “Secret Weapon” in Behavioral Health?
by Suzanne Tamer & Claudia Salazar
Jun 02, 2020 | 5391 views | 0 0 comments | 381 381 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When a longtime patient walked up to the pharmacy window on a recent afternoon, pharmacist Kerri Vallante instantly realized something was wrong. Usually talkative and neatly dressed, the woman, who was being treated for a severe mental health disorder, spoke in a rambling manner and her clothes were askew.

Vallente kept the woman at the window while pharmacy staff contacted her case manager. The pharmacy specializes in behavioral health and is based within a community mental health center, so a care provider was quickly mobilized to provide assistance.

One in five New Yorkers have a mental illness, and one in 10 experience mental health challenges serious enough to affect functioning in work, family and school life. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for many with mental health conditions due to increased stress, anxiety and isolation because of social distancing.

Pharmacists are on the front lines of helping those needing mental health assistance, often acting as a critical bridge between care providers and patients. That’s why more behavioral health clinics are adding pharmacies inside their facilities and integrating pharmacists into patients’ care teams.

One such pharmacy opened recently in the Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens Behavioral Health Center in Jackson Heights. It’s the 500th pharmacy operated by Genoa Healthcare, and the fourth in the state.

Having a pharmacy integrated with an outpatient care facility can significantly improve the ability of patients to stay on their medication plan. Direct, regular communication between the pharmacist and the consumer’s therapist or psychiatric provider allows for customized care and quick responses times if an individual isn’t following their medication plan.

While not taking prescribed medications is a problem for anyone, the consequences for those with a mental health or substance use disorder can be even more severe. A lapse in treatment can include significantly higher rates of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, side effects that interfere with functioning, and even suicide.

For people with behavioral health disorders, barriers to sticking to a medication plan can be high, ranging from cognitive impairment to stigma about diagnoses and treatment. In addition, many of these individuals also lack stable housing, transportation and social supports.

COVID-19 has presented an additional steep barrier. While outpatient facilities such as the Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens facility continues to provide care, many have had to temporarily suspend some on-site programs and shift to providing therapy by phone or video.

Integrated pharmacies can help bridge the treatment gap during the COVID-19 crisis with regular medication reminder calls, and by ensuring safe access to medication via home delivery, through the mail or via curb-side pickup.

Medications can be provided in a pre-filled pill organizer that groups doses by morning, noon, evening and bedtime. For many people taking several medications, this is much easier than juggling multiple pill bottles. And because the patient has to tear open the package to take a dose, it helps them remember that they took it.

A peer-reviewed study found that this unique on-site pharmacy model improves both quality of care and reduces costs. Those using this kind of pharmacy had a more than 90 percent medication adherence rate (compared to less than 50 percent at a typical retail pharmacy), 40 percent fewer hospitalizations and 18 percent fewer emergency room visits.

Aside from the impact on quality of life, this translates into significant cost savings.

The woman at pharmacist Vallente’s window ended up getting the care she needed. A previously untreated underlying health condition was diagnosed and treated, and medications for her mental health disorder were adjusted. In time, her mental health stabilized.

The woman’s case manager told Vallente that if she hadn’t intervened that Friday afternoon, the story could have turned out much differently, with a visit to an emergency room, a stay at a hospital or worse.

For people living with severe behavioral health issues, extra support from their care team, including their pharmacist, can mean the difference between life and death.

Suzanne Tamer is a pharmacist and the regional vice president for the Eastern Division at Genoa Healthcare. Claudia Salazar, LMSW, is vice president for Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens Mental Health Clinics, Rehabilitation, and Recovery Programs.
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