When your healthcare provider writes a prescription, you can usually head to your local pharmacy and get it filled that same day. That’s not always the case for certain cancer treatments, however, so you may need to utilize the services of a specialty pharmacist.
Also known as “oncology pharmacists,” these providers specialize in understanding and educating others about the unique drugs used for cancer treatment, which often require special handling and storage. Because traditional pharmacists don’t dispense these drugs often, they usually don’t keep them on hand. Specialty pharmacists, however, keep these treatments in stock and are well-versed in the special handling instructions for those taking the drugs, along with side effects and interactions that may occur. Your specialty pharmacist may be located in your town (and perhaps even in the same building as your cancer care center), or they may be located remotely and ship medications directly to your home.
Specialty pharmacies are also a valuable resource in communicating with healthcare providers and insurance companies, saving customers valuable time and money. A specialty pharmacy is usually assigned by a person’s insurance company, eliminating the need to shop around. Because they are pre-approved by insurance to work directly with oncologists and cancer care providers, oncology pharmacists can streamline the process from prescription to payment by obtaining the necessary documentation and approvals required for insurance coverage.
Other services a specialty pharmacist might provide:
- One-on-one instruction for handling and self-administering medication
- Supplies such as pen needles or alcohol swabs
- Electronic reminders to take your medication and/or refill your prescriptions
- Coordination with providers regarding changes in treatment and/or dosing
- 24/7 hotline support for questions about missed doses, side effects, medication and supplement interactions, or insurance reimbursement
- Assistance with financial relief services for those who cannot afford to pay
- Coordination of unique circumstances, such as delivering prescriptions while on vacation
- Regular wellness checks to review any questions or concerns you may have about your medication
- Assistance with disposing of expired medication or drugs you are no longer taking
Picking Up Your Prescription
Some specialty pharmacies work like traditional pharmacies, where you can take your prescription to a brick-and-mortar building and pick up your prescription that day. Other pharmacies ship to oncology offices only, meaning patients pick up their drugs at the doctor’s office and/or make an appointment to have the drug administered there. There are also specialty pharmacies that ship directly to the patient, who is then responsible for self-administering the drug (or, in some cases, taking the drug to their healthcare provider for administration). The method of prescription delivery is contingent upon state regulations, the type of medication prescribed, and how it should be handled (some drugs require constant refrigeration or special packaging, and must be delivered by a special courier service instead of shipped through the mail). If you have a preference for one method over another – for example, if you live in a rural area and cannot travel to your doctor’s office every week to pick up prescription refills, or if you prefer to have a healthcare professional administer injectable medication instead of doing it yourself – let your cancer care team know.
Getting the Most Out of Your Specialty Pharmacy
Know the appeals process. Sometimes, insurance companies deny certain specialty medication prescriptions. If this happens, your doctor’s office has the ability to assist you in appealing the insurance company’s decision and can explain why this particular medication is necessary. Your specialty pharmacy may also work with your doctor to change the medication to an approved alternative that may or may not be considered a specialty medication.
Ask for discounts.
Specialty medications can be expensive, even with insurance coverage. If your co-pay poses financial stress for you, ask your oncology pharmacist about co-pay assistance cards, or prescription assistance programs (like those found through Needymeds
), which lower the cost of the medication considerably for eligible patients. Discounts may apply to related supplies, too (such as needles or alcohol swabs). Pharmaceutical companies are required to assist patients who cannot afford their medications, provided the medication is only available as a brand-name (generic medication assistance is still sometimes available).
Request a training session. Your specialty pharmacy will have staff on hand to show you (and/or any caregivers) how to properly handle and administer your medication.
Don’t wait until the last minute to order refills. Unlike a traditional pharmacy, which can refill prescriptions while you wait at the counter, specialty pharmacies take time to package and ship refills. Account for this time when ordering refills, and order well before you run out. This will ensure you have enough medication to last until your next shipment arrives.
See if your specialty pharmacist has an auto-refill program. Many specialty pharmacists will send alerts when you are due for a refill, and ordering can be as simple as responding to a text message. Ask your pharmacist if you can sign up for such a service; if they don’t offer auto-refills, use the Jasper app or a repeating alert on your smartphone calendar to remind you to place an order.
Plan ahead. If you’re heading out on a trip, ask your specialty pharmacist if they have a location where you are traveling or if they can ship your medication to your destination. The same advice applies for extenuating circumstances like planning for a hurricane; if you know you won’t be able to leave your home for any period of time, ask your pharmacist about acquiring medications ahead of time. If you plan to stock enough of your prescription to last the duration of your trip or shelter-in-place, ask your pharmacist about special care instructions to ensure your medication remains safe and effective. Be sure to always keep an updated medication list in the Jasper app when you are traveling, in the event you need to visit an emergency room, urgent care, or pharmacy.
Ask! Just like doctors, nurses, radiation technicians, and oncology social workers, your pharmacist is a member of your cancer care team. Don't hesitate to ask them questions about your medications, how to administer them, and how to manage any side effects you might have.