Just as people stockpiled toilet paper at the outset of our current global pandemic due to fear of running out, the same was true of their medications.

AllazoHealth analyzed its clients’ data to see the impact of COVID-19 on refill rates and found the percentage of prescriptions filled more than a week before their due date more than doubled—increasing 18% between the weeks of March 14 and March 21. Furthermore, 33% fewer low-risk patients and 13% fewer high-risk patients filled their prescriptions only after their current supply ran out.

Medisafe, a digital therapeutics company for medication management solutions, has been checking in with patients through several in-app surveys to better understand their challenges during this time and found patients are definitely thinking about their ability to get medications.

“With more than 11,000 responses, it’s quite clear there is rising concern among patients that the pandemic is impacting their medication routines,” says Jennifer Butler, CMO, Medisafe. “Patients are primarily concerned about their access to medications and getting treated if infected, and this varies across conditions.”

Does that mean fear has actually led to better adherence during a pandemic that has seemingly disrupted every other aspect of life? Not necessarily. While Adheris Health noticed the same spike in overall prescription demand at first, President John Ciccio says prescription volume has since dipped below pre-pandemic levels.

“This is a concerning trend that indicates patients are not taking medications as prescribed or refilling on time,” Ciccio adds. “Interestingly, this is not consistent across drug classes—respiratory and mental health prescriptions have increased while women’s health and ADHD have declined; certain patient populations may be disproportionately affected and need more emphasis from brands. It is critical, now more than ever, to actively support patients as they take on more self-management of their conditions.”

Can Out-of-Work Patients Afford Their Meds?

Concern is also growing that prescription volume will continue to drop as more patients deal with the economic fallout from COVID-19. Last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that costs led 29% of Americans not to take their medications as prescribed. Between March and May 21, 38.6 million people have sought unemployment benefits, which means many no longer have health insurance. Fortunately, several segments within the healthcare industry have acted to provide support.

“Some pharmacy benefit managers extended prior authorizations for previously approved medications, waived prescription refill limits, and transitioned prescriptions to 90-day supplies of mail-order medications,” says Roshawn Blunt, Managing Director, 1798, a Fingerpaint Company. “Meanwhile, manufacturers have long offered patient-support programs to help ensure barriers to treatment and compliance are mitigated compliantly. But now, these programs’ teams must provide information on new compliance programs through insurance policies, identify ways to reduce copayments/coinsurance, and assess whether patients qualify for free drug programs.”

Generally spreading awareness that these kinds of programs exists will also be crucial, as Medisafe’s survey revealed over 30% of patients are unfamiliar with savings programs for their medications.

“Given the alarming statistics around Americans’ lack of savings, those suffering job loss are likely making extremely difficult choices around what can be afforded during the pandemic,” says Kate Zwizanski, SVP, Media, CMI/Compas. “We should be thinking about ways to enable adherence from end to end. Some examples might be: How to signal to an HCP that they have patients due for a refill, how to communicate any assistance/affordability programs that may enable that patient to afford their medication during this difficult time, and perhaps prescribe larger quantities of medications for chronic ailments so that patients have an adequate supply on hand.”

Ways to Boost Adherence During COVID

Besides offering financial assistance, companies are exploring other ways they can help ensure patients are able to get and stay on their therapies. For example, Grey Bear Consultancy is helping pharma companies to tap into the most urgent current needs of patients through search listening.

“This is where we provide pharma companies with insights on patient sentiment, their anxieties and fears, and the information that they are most seeking,” explains Emma Clayton, CEO, Grey Bear Consultancy. “We get to the heart of the patients pain points and the support that they need to maintain adherence and control their disease. If we understand these insights then we are in a much stronger position to make a difference as we can tailor content and information that provides the reinforcement and reassurance that patients need most.”

Meanwhile, David Linetsky, SVP, Life Sciences, Phreesia has found that digital intake platforms provide medical groups with an invaluable opportunity to address barriers to patient medication adherence.

“First of all, digital intake platforms get patients back in front of their providers, either in-person or via telehealth,” Linetsky explains. “Second, they allow providers to privately ask patients about the specific barriers to care that affect treatment adherence. Finally, they offer medical groups a platform to communicate with patients about the long-term consequences of non-adherence and raise their awareness about available support services. Although pharma dedicates tremendous resources to these programs, fewer than one in five patients are aware they exist. As an increasing number of patients schedule telehealth visits and return to the point of care, we must do more to leverage digital intake platforms to engage, educate, and support patients.”

Even as more patients return to doctors’ offices, there is no denying that telehealth and other remote solutions will continue to see increased use.

“Remote patient engagement platforms will allow HCPs to deliver personalized, evidence-based content and resources right to a patient’s mobile device, helping to safely deliver integrated care for patients during and beyond the pandemic,” says Chris Molaro, CEO and Co-founder, NeuroFlow. “Moreover, given the major toll the pandemic will take on the mental health epidemic, clinicians will need to leverage integrated behavioral health solutions that can complement existing telehealth tools to manage anxiety and depression at scale, ultimately encouraging engagement in one’s care, and influencing positive behavior change leading to higher levels of Rx adherence and improved patient outcomes.”

Ultimately, no matter where patients receive their care, they need support and adherence messaging now more than ever.

“While COVID-19 has changed so much in healthcare, it will never diminish the importance of connection and a strong doctor-patient relationship,” says Linda Ruschau, Chief Client Officer, PatientPoint. “By placing supportive treatment education and essential support and savings offers at all points of care, brands can become an important component of a doctor-patient engagement anywhere a patient and provider connect.”

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