Pharmacy informatics: New role for pharmacists

January 20, 2003

Pharmacists are ideal for getting into IS.

Increased use of technology in the workplace has created a market for skilled practitioners who are able to implement and manage the new systems. New opportunities abound for those pharmacists with an interest in the technology side of medication delivery.

In today's world of global connectivity and increased communication, pharmacy is yet another profession benefiting from technological advances, which are evident in almost every corner of pharmacy practice. Introduction of the electronic medical record (EMR), computerized physician order entry (CPOE), and robotics has eased the pharmacist's work flow considerably, but human input is still required for development, maintenance, and evaluation of these systems.

The complexity of the new technology that is being utilized in hospitals demands that there be people on staff with a deep understanding of the clinical aspects of patient care and medication use as well as of the inherent complexities of the technology, said Kasey K. Thompson, Pharm.D., director of the Center on Patient Safety, ASHP.

"The nature of their training as drug therapy experts and their knowledge of the entire medication use process make pharmacists ideal for these roles," Thompson said. Pharmacists skilled in hospital information system development, management, and effectiveness measurement will be in high demand, he added.

Pharmacy informatics refers to the relationship between pharmacy and medical computer applications that manage medication information and knowledge to enhance the services being provided, explained Diane L. Seger, R.Ph., who is pharmaco- informatics specialist, Clinical Quality and Analysis (CQA), Information Systems, at Partners HealthCare System in Wellesley, Mass. In her role, Seger writes functional specifications and works with developers to supply additional clinical decision support—including drug-disease, drug-pregnancy, and drug-laboratory interventions—to the outpatient prescribing system in her facility's EMR. Design and implementation of clinical decision support systems represent an emerging opportunity for pharmacists today, she said.

Pharmacists today can play a vital role in the development and maintenance of information technology. Input of clinical data must remain under the control of a pharmacist if all the benefits of the technology are to be realized, according to experts. Additionally, pharmacists should be involved in the interpretation of data collected from the new systems.

Prevention of errors is a primary reason for use of technology in pharmacy practice. Regarding her work with colleague David W. Bates, M.D., director of the CQA group and renowned expert on improving medication safety, Seger said their initial findings showed that medication errors were likely due to system flaws—the reason she has been working to develop and enhance her facility's CPOE system, EMR, and clinical decision support. Modifications in these systems are also expected to lead to substantial savings in medication costs.

In her article "Computerized POE: Changing Roles for the Clinical Pharmacist" (JAPhA, 1999), Seger said she believes that the role for pharmacists in informatics will continue to grow as physician order entry and "expert" computer systems (those using knowledge to help in the decision-making process) become more commonplace.

According to Seger, pharmacists are the ideal candidates for designing and implementing systems that reduce medication errors, medication cost, and medication mismanagement. It is important for someone pursuing a career in pharmacy informatics to be a very detail-oriented person and one who can listen to and understand what the user is asking for, she said. The key is learning to identify where problems exist, knowing what the current process is, and enhancing patient care and services without negatively affecting the current workflow. Realizing the usefulness of having a system where information and knowledge are readily available to the user is essential, she added.

Many pharmacy schools have changed their curricula to include classes that will help students develop the necessary skills for today's high-tech health systems. Courses include computer literacy, software applications, Internet communication, pharmacy automation, and information management. Specialized internships and postgraduate residencies are also available in pharmaco-informatics.

Heidi Belden, Pharm.D.

The author is a writer in Plymouth, Mass.