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Pharmacists Caring for the Nation's Wounded

Sep 28, 2010

Illustrated by Matt Sweitzer ©2010 ASHP

SINCE 2002, more than 425,000 veterans of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). That is an average of 258 new patients each day. As the system struggles to cope with the demand for services, pharmacy clinicians are coming face to face with a veteran population whose needs are strikingly different than those of veterans of previous wars and conflicts. Today’s veterans are young, many of them present with co-morbidities that include a psychological component, and 12 percent of them are women—the highest percentage of females in the system to date.

If ever there was a time for pharmacists to use their training as care providers and coordinators in tending to the nation’s wounded, that time is now. Fortunately, they are prepared: Pharmacists have been playing an integral role in care at the VA—and

in the Department of Defense (DoD), treating active-duty military personnel—since long before the U.S. launched military operations in the two current wars.

“We’ve been at the forefront of clinical pharmacy practice and have had quite a sophisticated level of practice for many years, with pharmacist-managed clinics and pharmacists embedded in primary-care teams,” said Michael Valentino, R.Ph., MHSA, chief consultant, Pharmacy Benefits Management Services, VA, Washington, D.C. “Now we are moving into some areas that require additional staffing to enhance services, such as mental health. We’re also involved with specialty clinics and centers, such as the five polytrauma centers in the system.”

The day-to-day activities of a pharmacist at the VA or DoD depend on the size of the facility, whether the pharmacist is working

with inpatients or outpatients, and the pharmacist’s own specialty, he added.

In general, however, pharmacists are rising to meet challenges in several key areas: patient transition from active duty (treatment by the DoD) to veteran (treatment by the VA); mental health, particularly where there are co-morbidities; and women’s care.

Transitioning Patients

According to Valentino, whenever there are handoffs during a patient’s transition from active duty to veteran, there is potential for a glitch, mainly because the computerized systems at the DoD and the VA are not linked. Although both agencies are working on ways to rectify the disconnect, for now the transition requires pharmacists and other clinicians to do some legwork.

“The VA and DoD try to look at handoffs at the micro level, and the VA has in fact put some staff at DoD centers to help smooth transitions,” Valentino said. “Before patients are discharged [from active duty], they are advised about VA services and hooked up with providers.”

“Good patient handoff is critical,” said Lieutenant Colonel Eric M. Maroyka, Pharm.D., BCPS, pharmacy director, Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Fort Belvoir, Va., and former U.S. Army officer in residence at ASHP. “We want to make sure that nothing gets dropped and that people don’t get lost to follow-up, with no one checking up on them for appointments and so on. We’re doing better at handing off information and plans to the VA and civilian sector.”

Mental Health and Co-Morbidities

Pharmacists who treat military personnel and veterans are seeing more patients who need behavioral health care than ever before. Part of the increase has to do with the nature of the current wars, said Maroyka.

“This is a tired military force with many of the combat troops getting deployed three or four times,” he said. “Over time, that can increase the risk of conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Traumatic injuries such as loss of limbs and disfiguring burns complicate a patient’s needs, he added. “Initially, the person may seem okay with it and appear to be progressing,” said Maroyka, “but down the road, behavioral issues will trump all.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge comes from traumatic brain injuries, including concussions from blast injuries. Treatment then becomes a test of a clinical pharmacist’s skill and training.

“If there is a traumatic brain injury, then all bets are off, and you’re flying by the seat of your pants,” said Matthew A. Fuller, Pharm.D., BCPS, BCPP, FASHP, clinical pharmacy specialist in psychiatry, Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. “You have to use what you know to treat the symptoms, especially if it is organic depression caused by head injury.”

He added that there is a dearth of published studies about patients in this particular population. “It’s frustrating,” said Fuller. “Trying to do research in that setting is next to impossible, and it is difficult to find supporting literature. We just don’t have it.”

“Co-morbidities are one of the biggest problems,” said Jennifer L. Mauldin, Pharm.D., clinical pharmacist at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa. “There are so many different specialists to refer patients to—the traumatic brain injury team, the psych team, the primary physician. I do a lot of medication reconciliation, making sure patients are on the same meds as outpatients that they were as inpatients.”

Mauldin noted the clinical challenges of co-morbidities. “For example, you might be inclined to give a patient a benzodiazepine for anxiety, but not if there’s a brain injury, because these drugs slow cognitive function,” she said. “On the other hand, a prescriber might order stimulants for a patient with a brain injury, but those can cause insomnia, which is not what someone with sleep disorders from post-traumatic stress needs.”

Patricia Oh, Pharm.D., clinical pharmacist at the Warrior Clinic of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., said that co-morbidities present a clinical challenge to pharmacists in terms of coordinating care.

“One of the things we have to be proactive about is recognizing the signs and symptoms of co-morbidities and indicators of risk,” she said. “We’re part of a multidisciplinary team, and we need to be able to refer patients to their doctors or specialists appropriately.”

Oh noted the important role that pharmacists play in ensuring that patients and their caregivers understand how to manage patient medications.

“A lot of our work has been education,” she said, “whether it’s with the patients themselves or with their non-medical attendants,” such as family members, friends, or others.

Coordinating Care in Smaller Facilities

The James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital has one of the five polytrauma centers in the VA system, which gives it a leg up on managing care for patients with co-morbidities. However, coordinating care can be more challenging in smaller VA facilities, such as the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno, Nev., where Scott E. Mambourg, Pharm.D., BCPS, is clinical pharmacy coordinator and residency director.

“Here we have to coordinate that care with bigger medical centers,” Mambourg said, which results in interfacility VA referrals or fee-basis to private care, depending on patient need. “It requires a lot of communication, and important functions such as medication reconciliation and monitoring for outcomes and adverse events become that much more critical.”

Virginia Torrise, Pharm.D.

He added that it can be tough for patients in rural areas to travel to the medical center. Younger veterans in rural areas often turn to private, civilian care, which can create complications for co-managed care. In response, the VA is funding rural health solutions such as telephone care and community-based outpatient clinics.

“Some veterans come to us for the prescription benefits. They will present prescriptions written by private-care providers for expensive drugs, but prescriptions have to be written by a VA provider for us to fill them,” Mambourg said. “For the VA to take that responsibility, we would need the patient’s private records, and the patient would have to be enrolled in the care of a VA primary care or specialty provider for the prescribing and monitoring of those medications.”

Women’s Health Challenges

Every VA facility has a women’s health coordinator and women’s health clinic separate from the general clinic, and female veterans may choose which clinic to go to for care. However, the main challenge in meeting women’s needs is facilities-based.

“The VA just wasn’t set up for women’s health,” said Lt. Col. Maroyka. “VAs never really handled obstetrics and gynecology or delivered babies before. The facilities weren’t designed for it.”

Now, VA and DoD pharmacists are finding themselves having discussions with patients about genetic testing and counseling pregnant patients on the relative risks of pharmacologic treatment of depression.

“As the medication experts, we have to consider what is best for both mother and child, because the drugs can affect the fetus,” said Fuller, of the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center. “If the depression isn’t severe, we can point to cognitive behavioral therapy, without drugs, especially during the first trimester. Likewise, pregnancy pushes us away from certain anticonvulsants that can normally be used for traumatic brain injury.”

Roughly 10 percent of VA facilities have clinics geared specifically toward women’s mental health issues, he added. These programs employ specialists who focus on treating female veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual trauma (which encompasses a broad range of issues from sexual harassment to sexual assault), and other mental health issues.

A Growing Need for Pharmacists

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in an increased need for clinical pharmacists and clinical pharmacy specialists who can support case managers and care coordinators, said Virginia Torrise, Pharm.D., deputy chief consultant for professional practice and clinical informatics, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, D.C.

“VA is embracing the principles of the patient- centered medical home, and we are recommending that there be a higher number of clinical pharmacy specialists available,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for pharmacy managers to provide guidance for what staffing is required to adequately support the medication management needs of our veterans.”

Clinical pharmacy specialists in the VA can prescribe medications and order tests within the practice setting, an expansion of scope of practice that can benefit patients, according to Torrise.

“Our specialists are highly trained professionals working at the top of their skills,” she noted, adding that VA pharmacists often treat multiple chronic diseases in primary care. “Our physicians are recognizing the excellent care that clinical pharmacists provide and seeing how these referrals free up their time for more urgent clinical needs. Our veterans are entitled to the best care, and pharmacists are key members of the clinical teams to provide this care.”

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