Pharmacy deserts raise concern

Study finds racial and ethnic minorities less likely to have community access to pharmacies

We commonly hear about food deserts, which are defined as geographical areas where access to nutritious food is scarce, but what about pharmacy deserts? Like food deserts, pharmacy deserts are predominantly found in poor and underserved communities, according to a new study in November’s Health Affairs.

“Our findings suggest that public policies aimed at improving access to prescription medications may need to address factors beyond insurance coverage and medication affordability,” the authors wrote.

Researchers examined communities in Chicago that varied in racial and ethnic makeup. They found that pharmacy deserts were most prevalent in segregated black and Hispanic communities than in segregated white and integrated communities. Additionally, they found that the trend seems to be worsening over time.

The research team examined data on community pharmacies from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation from 2000–12, as well as other sources. According to the study, the mean number of pharmacies in segregated white and integrated communities in 2000 were 0.67 and 0.83 per census tract, respectively, and only 0.56 and 0.55 for segregated Hispanic and black communities, respectively (P < 0.05).

Over the study period, the research team found that the number of pharmacies in segregated white communities increased by 30% while the number of pharmacies in segregated Hispanic and black communities declined by 17% and 11%, respectively.

The authors urge policy leaders to recognize the issue of pharmacy deserts for its effects on population health and health disparities. Local pharmacies are not only important for access to prescription medications, they state, but to preventive services pharmacists increasingly provide.