The Role of Pharmacists in Your Cancer Treatment Journey
Pharmacists are highly-accessible members of the health care community. While pharmacists are often employed by independent or chain drug stores, they also work in clinics, hospitals, and “specialty pharmacies,” which manage the dispensing, reimbursement, case management, and other services specific to medications for complex or chronic conditions.
Regardless of the type of medicine that a doctor prescribes, pharmacists help patients by:
- Explaining how the medication works. Your doctor or another member of your health care team may have reviewed the ins-and-outs of the medication when you received your prescription, but hearing the information more than once is helpful—especially at what can be a stressful time.
- Reinforcing how the medication is to be taken. For example, some medications should be taken with meals; others should be taken on an empty stomach. If the medication is self-administered via an injection, the pharmacist can explain the proper injection technique.
- Reviewing what side effects might occur. This information is provided in the “package insert” (PI) that accompanies the medication, but it can be valuable to hear it explained in everyday language. The pharmacist can also monitor any side effects you may experience, and offer guidance (in collaboration with your health care team) on possible ways to relieve the symptoms these side effects may cause.
- Explaining what your insurance covers. An insurer may require that a generic (or biosimilar) version of the drug be dispensed, if one exists. Your pharmacist can help you determine if this is the case, and explain any differences between the original drug and the covered drug, including any out-of-pocket cost implications.
- Ensuring patients take their medication as prescribed. Pharmacists can provide tips to help you stay “compliant” with your medication, such as using a pill sorter to stay organized, and signing up for automated refill reminder calls or text messages from the pharmacy. He or she may also suggest you download a medication reminder app for use on your smart phone or tablet. Many apps of this type are available for free or at a small cost.
- Recommending financial resources. There are a number of financial aid organizations and patient assistance programs available to help patients with their out-of-pocket expenses. Your pharmacist can be a good source of information about these resources.
As you manage your cancer, it’s important to remember that you are a consumer of health care. The best way to make decisions about health care is to educate yourself about your diagnosis and get to know the members of your health care team, including doctors, nurses, dietitians, social workers and patient navigators.
Here are some tips for improving communication with your health care team:
Start a health care journal. Having a health care journal or notebook will allow you to keep all of your health information in one place. You may want to write down the names and contact information of the members of your health care team, as well as any questions for your doctor. Keep a diary of your daily experiences with symptoms related to your illness or treatment. You can separate your journal or notebook into different sections to help keep it organized.
Prepare a list of questions. Before your next medical appointment, write down your questions and concerns. Because your doctor may have limited time, you should ask your most important questions first, and be as specific and brief as possible.
Bring someone with you to your appointments. Even if you have a journal and a prepared list of questions or concerns, it’s always helpful to have support when you go to your appointments. The person who accompanies you can serve as a second set of ears. He or she may also think of questions to ask your doctor or remember details about your symptoms or treatment that you may have forgotten.
Write down your doctor’s answers. Taking notes will help you remember your doctor’s responses, advice, and instructions. If you cannot write down the answers, ask the person who accompanies you to do that for you. If you have a mobile device, ask if you can use it to take notes. Writing notes will help you review the information later.
Record your visit if your doctor allows it. Recording the conversation with your doctor gives you a chance to hear specific information again or share it with family members or friends.
Incorporate other health care professionals into your team. Your oncologist and oncology nurse are essential members of your health care team, but there are other health care professionals who can help you manage your care:
- Your primary care physician should be kept updated about your cancer treatment and any test results.
- Your local pharmacist is a great source of knowledge about the medications you are taking; have all of your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy to avoid the possibility of harmful drug interactions.
- Make sure your oncologist knows of any other medical conditions you have, or any pain you are experiencing, so that he or she can consult with your primary care physician or your specialist if needed.
Remember, there is no such thing as over-communication. Your health care team wants to know about how you’re feeling overall, which includes your level of pain, your energy level, your appetite, and your mood and spirits.