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    Alzheimer's Disease: Untapped Potential for Pharmacy

    Many pharmacies across the country are searching for new ways to demonstrate their value as a health care partner in a way that is manageable and cost effective. One solution could be to focus on a population that’s growing rapidly: patients with Alzheimer’s disease. By employing just a few resources and tapping into pharmacists’ existing knowledge and skills, pharmacists can become the perfect partner in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease.

    “Helping people with Alzheimer’s makes use of the compliance and adherence information that we’ve already learned for all of our patients. So this is a patient population that we can very easily serve with very few resources, just a little time, and we can really make a significant difference in their care and their outcomes,” says Lori Syed, PharmD, Director of Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences in the Department of Pharmacy Practice at Mercer University, in Atlanta, GA.

    Community pharmacists can help by simplifying drug regimens, identifying medications that may be causing additional confusion, or using innovative packaging strategies. But their role doesn’t end there. Pharmacists can also aid in the identification of possible Alzheimer’s symptoms.

    Across the country, a growing number of pharmacies are offering simple cognitive memory screenings as part of their regular counseling services. Community pharmacies are also reaching out to form partnerships with local chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association or developing stronger relationships with the physicians who treat these patients to better serve this population.

    A Growing Problem

    As the baby boomers enter their golden years, the number of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is on the rise. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 5.4 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. By 2050, the number of people over age 65 who have the disease is projected to be 13.8 million--nearly three times current levels if no significant clinical breakthroughs are made.

    There will be a great need in the medical community to care for these patients. Many pharmacists in both community and clinic settings are already armed with the tools and skills necessary to be a valuable member of the healthcare team.

    According to Syed, pharmacists already have the ability to speak two languages: They can have a simplified conversation with a layperson and a more technical, detailed, medical discussion with physicians and other healthcare providers.

    This “bilingual” ability— combined with their accessibility, extensive drug knowledge and established trust with patients—positions pharmacists to be a powerful resource to both patients and physicians.

    “We have that ability to liaison between patient and physician,” Syed says. “Often times patients may tell us things or we may elicit more information about how they are taking medications than they’ve shared with other caregivers. We may know that they are only taking their medication every other day because they really can’t afford it.”

    Identification of Memory Concerns

    Community pharmacists may also be among the first health care practitioners to notice early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in their regular patients.

    Everyone is occasionally confused, particularly older adults who are often managing multiple medications. However, Syed says if pharmacists have tried giving patients tools to help manage their medications and confusion still persists it may be time for concern.

    Geriatric neurologist Rita A. Shapiro, DO, FACP, FAAN, says pharmacists should look for changes in adherence, confusion at the cash register, a customer wearing clothing that doesn’t match the season, or trouble communicating as possible early signs of dementia.

    “Many times dementia is uncovered when a person begins to fail functionally in their own life,” Shapiro says, who serves as a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago. “Pharmacists will probably notice first that this person who used to be very reliable about refilling their meds has run out of one or is filling one and not the other.”

    Next: Communicate with caregivers

    Jill Sederstrom
    Jill Sederstrom is a Contributing Editor

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