Study links disparities and ‘pharmacy deserts’ in Los Angeles

A new study from the University of California, Irvine (UCI), examines so-called pharmacy deserts in the state—Los Angeles County, specifically.

Unlike previous studies, this one describes pharmacy deserts in terms of social determinants of health.

Pharmacy deserts are characterized by a lack of reasonable access to pharmacy services—within 1 mile for the purposes of the study.

According to the UCI researchers, these neighborhoods frequently have denser populations and are predominantly home to Black and Latino populations. Vehicle and home ownership also tends to be lower in these areas, researchers found, while crime and poverty rates are usually higher.

“These social determinants of health compound the negative effects of pharmacy shortage through competing needs,” said the study’s lead author, Cheryl Wisseh, PharmD, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy Practice College of Health Sciences at UCI, in a news release. “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.”

The study, which was published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, also suggests that these patients are not getting the COVID-19 care and services they need, leading to a higher prevalence of infections and associated deaths. Living in a pharmacy desert can correlate with lower COVID-19 vaccination distribution, as well.

“As the COVID-19 vaccines start rolling out, pharmacists will be key to the rapid and equitable distribution and administration of doses, just as they have been with COVID-19 testing,” said Jan D. Hirsch, founding dean of the UCI’s School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, in the same news release.

Since pharmacies are a large distributor of vaccines across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic makes access to pharmacists even more pressing.

Wisseh and her team said residents within Los Angeles County’s pharmacy deserts need innovative community-based interventions to improve access, such as staffing local clinics and other primary care settings with pharmacists.