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Telepharmacy allows greater pharmacist access, enhanced patient care at ETMC Pittsburg, ETMC Mount Vernon


Mount Vernon telepharmacy 
Sara McCoy, pharmacy technician at ETMC Mount Vernon, discusses the day’s drug orders with pharmacist Laura McHenry via secure video link in the hospital’s pharmacy. 

Communicating via video link was once a thing of science fiction movies, a dream for the future. Today, it is a reality. Thanks to advances in technology, virtually anyone can communicate via audio and video at any time.

Two ETMC hospitals are utilizing this advanced communications technology to enhance patient care. Since January, Hunter Pharmacy Services, Inc. of Austin has been providing ETMC Pittsburg and ETMC Mount Vernon with real-time access to a pharmacist via video communications link--a service referred to as telepharmacy.

Texas pharmacy regulations require hospitals with 100 beds or less to have a pharmacist onsite once every seven days. Both ETMC Mount Vernon and ETMC Pittsburg previously operated under this model.

However, in 2009, regulations were adopted that allow hospitals with 100 or fewer beds to have a pharmacist remotely provide supervision of pharmacy staff.

“We had a good system in place,” said Janice Millikan, PharmD, director of pharmacy for ETMC Pittsburg and ETMC Mount Vernon, “but with telepharmacy, we just exponentially enhance patient care. This gives us another set of eyes to check everything and enhances patient safety.”

Millikan visits both hospitals each week, where she primarily handles administrative and operational issues. Most of the day-to-day functions in the pharmacies are handled by pharmacy technicians. “They are the first-line people,” Millikan said. “They are responsible for order entry and refilling the Pyxis machines (automated dispensing machines where medicines are stored in patient care areas) in compliance with Texas law. All of our pharmacy technicians are nationally certified and registered with the state of Texas.”

However, pharmacy technicians do not have the education or training to make clinical decisions regarding patient care, such as suggesting an alternative medicine or a different dosage based on a patient’s individual needs. That is the job of the pharmacist, and that’s where Laura McHenry, PharmD, comes in. McHenry is employed by HPS and has her office in Austin, but she is simply a phone call away for hospital staff.

The hospital pharmacies have been equipped with secure, real-time audio/video communications workstations, which include 42-inch monitors and high-resolution image cameras to record drug images for each prescription approved.

Whenever she is needed, pharmacy technicians or other staff members simply call and when McHenry answers they are connected via video link. She then reviews and approves drug orders and answers any drug-related questions. The camera allows technicians to share drug orders and drug images with McHenry. Through a secure connection, she has access to all patient information relevant to her job as a pharmacist, such as lab work and other test results, Millikan said.

“We now have a pharmacist on the other end that is prospectively reviewing our drug orders, rather than doing so retrospectively. She is making meaningful, clinical interventions in real time,” Millikan said. “That’s an advantage that typically only larger hospitals have because of their staffing.”

McHenry agrees. “Most small hospitals have a pharmacist-in-charge that is only there eight hours a week, making order verification retroactive and clarifications nearly impossible. I believe the greatest benefit (of telepharmacy) is having real-time pharmacist coverage to verify and/or clarify patient medication orders.”

In addition to ETMC Pittsburg and ETMC Mount Vernon, McHenry also serves as the pharmacist for Brownfield Regional Medical Center. What she likes best about telepharmacy is being able improve the quality of care patients receive. “I’m able to provide pharmacist services to patients who would not normally have this amount of coverage in a small hospital,” she said.

“Advances in technology are advancing the way healthcare is delivered,” said Perry Henderson, senior administrator of ETMC Pittsburg. “We are proud to be a leader in utilizing telepharmacy and other technologies in order to enhance the care we provide our patients. Our goal is to always provide the highest quality, most advanced healthcare locally. Telepharmacy is a tool to help us reach that goal in the communities these hospitals serve.”