A graduate of the College of Pharmacy at Rosalind Franklin University owns and operates the first pharmacy in the State of Tennessee to be named a provider for the federal Vaccines For Children (VFC) program, which offers vaccines at no cost to children who might otherwise not be vaccinated because of inability to pay.
“I was looking for more free services that add value for the community,” said Hetal Patel, PharmD ’18, RPh, BSc, who invested in a special refrigerator/freezer and other equipment to participate in VFC. “I’m always asking, ‘What can we provide to my patients and community that can help solve their problems?’”
According to a 2021 survey by the Tennessee Department of Health, the state ranks in the bottom 20% of states and 41st in the nation for the completion of the CDC’s recommended seven-vaccine series for protection against a host of diseases, including polio, Hepatitis B and measles. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a downturn in state child vaccination rates, which, the report notes, are historically lower for Black children compared to white children.
In 2021, Dr. Patel — joined by her husband, who left his job in IT to help with pharmacy operations — opened the Lebanon Family Pharmacy in Lebanon, a suburb of Nashville. She previously worked for a top pharmacy chain, where she began thinking about how she could better meet the needs of her community and use her expertise.
“Customer service was a big issue with chains,” Dr. Patel said. “I wanted to make sure my patients got the care they needed. I wanted to know them by name, to understand their medical conditions and to use that knowledge in making recommendations around medication therapy management. I wanted to engage in a deeper level of communication. You can’t do that when you’re producing 1,000 prescriptions a day. What I like about being my own boss is that I get to make my own decisions when it comes to clinical care.”
I wanted to engage in a deeper level of communication. You can’t do that when you’re producing 1,000 prescriptions a day.
Dr. Patel also administers COVID vaccines, sometimes to people who arrive angry, saying they feel forced, that their new job or the military requires vaccination.
“My approach to those patients is, ‘OK, let’s just sit down and have a chat about this,’” she said. “Most people do open up and share their concerns. We read through the vaccine information, discuss what they’ve heard. We discuss the source of their information. I tell them, ‘Let’s put politics aside. Put all the noise aside. Think about your family. Think about your job, your life. Do what’s best for you and your family.’ We hash it all out. It can take 30 minutes or sometimes an hour. The good thing about owning your own pharmacy that is not a high-volume pharmacy is that you have lots of time for these clinical conversations.”
Dr. Patel estimates that 99% of her more reticent patients receive the vaccine.
“I call them the next day to ask how they’re doing,” she said. “And they often admit that they don’t know why they were so worried. Hearing that makes me feel like everything else in the world can wait if I can make one person feel better about getting the vaccine.”
Opening an independent pharmacy during a pandemic was a bold move. But the Patels believe in the power of their services and the care they offer. COVID made opening a pharmacy challenging, Dr. Patel admits, but the pandemic has had an upside.
“What COVID did — and I think probably one of the best things that has ever happened to pharmacy — is it gave pharmacists more recognition when it came to clinical care,” Dr. Patel said. “We became more of a clinician to our patients. Before COVID, only health departments and pediatricians were allowed to offer free vaccines to children. Now, we’ve been given more authority. Not just vaccinating, but clearance for testing and the ability to prescribe Paxlovid.”
The town’s urgent care center refers patients who test positive for COVID to the Lebanon Family Pharmacy.
Exciting things are happening in the world of pharmacy.
“They know we will call the primary care provider,” Dr. Patel said. “That we will figure out the labs, the kidney function and drug interactions. We educated them about the fact that patients no longer need a prescription for Paxlovid. We pharmacists can take care of it without a prescription. They were amazed and thanked us for helping them out. Exciting things are happening in the world of pharmacy.”
Dr. Patel notes another upside to the pandemic. She has seen her community grow stronger as people come together to support one another. Her work and volunteer efforts as a pharmacist, citizen and parent, in her business, in the schools and for local fundraisers, have been part of that.
“We’re a family-owned business and we take care of families and individuals — all incomes and ages,” Dr. Patel said. “Pets are family, too, and we can fill their prescriptions. We’re always asking, ‘How can we make a bigger impact with the care we provide to our patients and our community?’”
Judy Masterson is a staff writer with RFU’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management.
- In August 2021, 50.7% of the U.S. population had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
- At that same point, Tennessee reported 40.11% of its population was fully vaccinated, ranking 43rd out of the 50 states.
- Blacks and Non-Hispanic Whites had the lowest vaccination rates in the state at 33.1% and 37.7%, respectively.
- Rural counties represent 70 of the total 95 counties in Tennessee; densely populated urban counties had significantly higher vaccination rates than the rural counties.
Source: “Targeting COVID Vaccine Hesitancy in Rural Communities in Tennessee: Implications for Extending the COVID-19 Pandemic in the South,” National Institutes of Health, Nov. 4, 2021.