How to Get Your Prescriptions If You’re In a Pharmacy Desert

Not having a pharmacy close to home shouldn’t keep you from getting your meds.

An illustration of a medication dropper left behind in a desert.

It’s not a mirage. Pharmacies across the country are closing, creating “pharmacy deserts” in hardstruck communities.[1]

According to a 2019 analysis, 1 in 8 pharmacies nationwide closed between 2009 and 2015.[2] And many of those closures occurred in rural and poorer urban areas — places that can least afford to lose healthcare access.

Losing convenient access to a pharmacy close to home creates added challenges for people simply trying to fill their prescriptions, especially for those with limited access to transportation.

The good news is that new methods of delivery are easing the burden on impacted people.

If you live in an area without nearby access to a pharmacy, don’t fear. There are ways you can navigate this desert.

What’s a pharmacy desert?

The term “pharmacy desert” is based on the concept of “food deserts,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to the USDA, you live in a food desert if you don’t live near a supermarket or large grocery store. In urban areas, that means your closest store is at least one mile away. In rural areas, you have to travel more than 10 miles to get groceries.

Similarly, pharmacy deserts are areas where residents have less access to pharmacies. This distance creates challenges for many when it comes to filling their prescriptions.

The good news is that there are new ways to get your prescriptions if you live in a pharmacy desert.

Factors that lead to pharmacy deserts

Like food deserts, pharmacy deserts are most often found in lower-income urban and rural areas.

And it’s been a growing issue. An analysis published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 1 in 8 pharmacies closed between 2009 and 2015.[2]

Many of these closures involved independently owned pharmacies that found it tough to compete with large chains.

But pharmacies that served low-income areas were particularly hard-hit. They were twice as likely to have closed.[1]

Challenges of living in a pharmacy desert

Having easy and convenient access to a pharmacy near you obviously makes it easier to fill your prescriptions when you need them. But what happens when your nearest pharmacy isn’t so near?

Transportation is the largest barrier. If you once had a pharmacy within walking distance, now you may have to drive or take public transportation.

You may find yourself driving farther to the nearest pharmacy. Or, if you don’t have access to a car, needing to arrange a ride with a friend or family member.

This also can take up more of your time, especially for prescriptions you need to fill more often.

What you can do if you live in a pharmacy desert

If you’re living in a pharmacy desert, there’s good news. There are new ways to get your prescriptions other than the traditional in-person visit to your pharmacy.

Mail-order pharmacies mean your prescription comes right to you. And if you find a mail-order pharmacy that has an agreement with your insurer’s pharmacy benefit manager, or PBM, you could also receive significant discounts.

(Just keep in mind the time of delivery. This isn’t a choice for a last-minute fill on your prescription.)

Some pharmacies offer their own prescription delivery, where a company driver promptly brings them to your house. This option is similar to a pizza delivery, and is often easier and faster than receiving them by mail. Check with your pharmacy to see if they offer this choice.

More states are also now allowing telepharmacies, which allows a pharmacist to remotely supervise pharmacist technicians at a physical site. This means the expertise of a pharmacist can reach areas that might not financially support a traditional pharmacy.

If none of these choices are available to you, you can still decrease the impact of living in a pharmacy desert through good planning.

Think ahead to your medication needs for the coming weeks and talk to your pharmacy. They may give choices to get more of your prescriptions filled at the same time, reducing the number of trips you’ll make.

Pharmacy deserts may be on the rise, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an oasis in sight. Find out how to save money on your prescriptions.

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Brad Keefe is a former award-winning journalist and film critic of 20 years based in Columbus, Ohio. In recent years, he’s worked with several nationally renowned brands while continuing to occasionally scratch his journalism itch.

Jeremy Slagle is a graphic designer and illustrator based in Columbus, Ohio. With more than 25 years of experience, Jeremy has worked with clients such as Nickelodeon, Bath & Body Works, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Wired Magazine and more.

This article was last updated May 19, 2020