health

Nearly half of Los Angeles residents live in 'pharmacy deserts,'


One-quarter of Los Angeles residents live in areas without close access to pharmacy services, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, found that 25 percent of the county’s more than 2,300 census tracts live in so-called ‘pharmacy deserts.’

What’s more, results found that mostly poor, largely black and LatinX neighborhoods have the fewest pharmacies. 

Public health experts worry this could impede efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, especially among of the worst current hot spots in the U.S.   

A new study has found that 2.4 million of Los Angeles County's 10 million residents live in so-called 'pharmacy deserts' (above)

A new study has found that 2.4 million of Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents live in so-called ‘pharmacy deserts’ (above)

The median distance to the nearest retail pharmacy for residents in pharmacy deserts was 1.38 miles compared to 0.5 miles for pharmacy non-deserts

The median distance to the nearest retail pharmacy for residents in pharmacy deserts was 1.38 miles compared to 0.5 miles for pharmacy non-deserts

‘My goal is to bring these concepts together at the intersection of pharmacy practice, public health and social justice to reduce health disparities,’ said first author Dr Cheryl Wisseh, a health sciences assistant clinical professor of clinical pharmacy practice at UCI, in a statement.

The study, published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, is the first to look at pharmacy deserts in the state of California.

Previous studies have found evidence of pharmacy deserts in large metropolitan areas such as  Chicago and Philadelphia.

Researchers obtained pharmacy data from the California Department of Consumer Affairs Pharmacy Board Licensee database, most recently updated in January 2020. 

Independently owned and retail chain pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, were geocoded and included in the analysis.

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Regions were identified as pharmacy deserts if their nearest pharmacy was at least one mile away. 

They found that 25 percent, or 571, of Los Angeles County’s 2,323 census tracts were classified as pharmacy deserts.

That’s about 2.4 million of the county’s 10 million residents.

The median distance to the nearest retail pharmacy for residents in pharmacy deserts was 1.38 miles, compared to 0.5 miles for those in pharmacy non-deserts. 

People who lived in pharmacy deserts were more likely to be Black and Hispanic, speak English as a second language, and have more residents living under the federal poverty level.

These areas were also had fewer health professionals to serve the area.  

‘These social determinants of health compound the negative effects of pharmacy shortage through competing needs,’ Wisseh said.

‘For example, some residents living below the poverty line may choose to forgo picking up their medications so that they can pay for food, rent and other necessities.’

Residents in pharmacy deserts were more likely to be Black and Hispanic, speak English as a second language and live under the federal poverty level. Pictured: A pharmacy in  Tehachapi, California

Residents in pharmacy deserts were more likely to be Black and Hispanic, speak English as a second language and live under the federal poverty level. Pictured: A pharmacy in  Tehachapi, California

Experts worry this will make it more difficult to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines, especially among one of the nation's worst hit areas. Pictured: David Cheng, director of inpatient pharmacy, holds the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles, December 14

Experts worry this will make it more difficult to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines, especially among one of the nation’s worst hit areas. Pictured: David Cheng, director of inpatient pharmacy, holds the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles, December 14

Because pharmacies are one of the biggest distributors of COVID-19 vaccines, this could have implications for the rollout.

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What’s more, this could have large implications for vaccination rates in Los Angeles County, one of the nation’s top hotspots for COVID-19. 

The virus is surging in the county with 1,000 deaths recorded in just six days. In fact, COVID-19 is now claiming more lives daily than all other causes combined. 

‘When you can go in and get vaccinated within your neighborhood, it’s undoubtedly safer than having to go to a clinic right now where there’s more exposure,’ Dr Jonathan Watanabe, a professor of clinical pharmacy at UCI, told DailyMail.com. 

‘It mitigates so many risks of comorbities’ such as diabetes and obesity. 

Watanabe says this will especially be more relevant when the vaccine produced by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. 

Unlike the jabs produced by Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc, the AstraZeneca shot can be stored in a refrigerator.

‘This will make it easier for pharmacies to store a vaccine,’ he said. 

He says when people forego going to pharmacies that will easily be able to administer vaccines, it may have consequences in curbing the pandemic. 

‘There’s a real consequence when there’s any mechanism so these patients cant get vaccinated for COVID or potentially tested, or even get a flu shot.’ 

Researchers recommend community-based interventions to increase access to medications, pharmacy services and pharmacists.

Some academic centers and schools of pharmacies are doing this: pharmacists and technicians to be a part of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns,’ said Watanabe.

‘Go to congregate living establishments and vaccinate there.’

He added that there are also some efforts to try and deploy pharmacists to local clinics and other primary care settings to reach patients where they are. 

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