Telepharmacy: Replacing Pharmacists or Extending Reach?

In early November, Hy-Vee, a large Midwestern supermarket pharmacy chain, announced their purchase of two existing telepharmacies in Victor and West Liberty, Iowa. Both rural locations will continue to operate as telepharmacies under the Hy-Vee banner.

As small rural pharmacies face low prescription volumes and look for ways to decrease operating costs, telepharmacy may provide a solution. Currently, twenty-three states permit telepharmacy, six are conducting pilot programs and five more are allowing submissions to start pilot programs. In Iowa, telepharmacy pilot programs began in 2012 with the pharmacy in Victor and legislation allowing telepharmacy was signed in April of 2016.  These telepharmacies must register with the board of pharmacy through a limited use license, be located a maximum of 50 miles from their managing pharmacy, and a minimum of 10 miles from all existing pharmacies. They are permitted to sell over-the-counter products (OTC) and dispense controlled substances. Activities such as OTC sales of pseudoephedrine, OTC product counseling, tech-check-tech, and compounding are not permitted unless a pharmacist is physically present.

Data from the pilot program in Victor and West Liberty showed an average of 50-60 prescriptions per day dispensed from each store. For residents in these small rural towns with other pharmacies twenty minutes or more away, telepharmacy provides pharmacy access and may mean the difference between a patient picking up a refill on time or choosing to go without medication. Supporters say these telepharmacies do not replace retail pharmacies, but rather expand access to areas where volume is not sufficient to sustain a profitable retail pharmacy.

While increasing access and allowing small pharmacies to stay in business are two clear benefits, the risks to patient safety and the profession of pharmacy cannot be ignored. The North Dakota Telepharmacy Project found significantly more medication errors in telepharmacies compared to traditional retail pharmacies.1 Without pharmacists present to monitor operations, rates of medication errors should be closely monitored. Services such as immunizations cannot be offered, and patients must use a camera to communicate with a pharmacist leading some to argue this is a step backwards for the profession of pharmacy, limiting the scope of practice and placing a barrier between patients and pharmacist.

Do you believe telepharmacy is a positive health care service for small rural communities?   Would you be comfortable obtaining your prescription needs without having face-to-face access to a pharmacist?


  1. Friesner DL et al. Do remote community telepharmacies have higher medication error rates that traditional community pharmacies? Evidence from the North Dakota Telepharmacy Project. J Am Pharm Assoc. 2011;51:580-590.


Published November 2017

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