Working With a Specialty Pharmacy

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2017

A specialty pharmacy is a pharmacy that provides medicines that may need special care. These medicines may need to be kept cold or handled in a specific way. This means that they may not be easily available at a retail pharmacy. Some people with cancer may need to get medicines from a specialty pharmacy. People with other diseases and chronic conditions, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hemophilia, and multiple sclerosis, may also need to get some prescriptions through a specialty pharmacy.

A specialty pharmacy may provide medicines given by injection or in pills or capsules taken by mouth. Providing these medicines through a specialty pharmacy ensures that they are delivered properly and safely.

Where are specialty pharmacies located?

Some specialty pharmacies have physical locations, often in large cities. People with cancer may visit these sites to pick up their medicines or receive them there. They may also talk with a pharmacist and other members of the specialty pharmacy team about their medicines.

Other specialty pharmacies do not have physical store locations but ship medicines directly to people’s homes. These specialty pharmacies interact with their customers on the phone, often on a monthly basis. During these calls, a member of the pharmacy staff can help people understand their medicines and medical conditions so they continue to take their medicines exactly as instructed.

The specialty pharmacy care team

In addition to pharmacists, several other health professionals work at specialty pharmacies:

  • Certified pharmacy technicians

  • Registered nurses

  • Case managers

  • Counselors

These professionals perform several important tasks:

  • Reviewing medicines and dosing schedules

  • Discussing injection and infusion techniques

  • Teaching patients how to dispose of waste properly

Tips for working with a specialty pharmacy

Look for a website for more information. Specialty pharmacies usually have websites that offer specific information and answers to frequently asked questions. This is often a good place to look for contact information or general cost questions. If a doctor’s referral is necessary, the forms may be on the website to download and print. You can take these to your doctor’s office to fill out with your health care team.

Talk to your insurance provider ahead of time. Whether you are referred to a specialty pharmacy often depends on your health insurance provider. Be sure to ask your insurance provider if this is part of your health care coverage before filling your prescription. 

Ask about the counseling and support services offered. Many specialty pharmacies offer around-the-clock telephone support lines where you can speak with members of the specialty pharmacy care team. Ask any questions you have about your condition or medicines. Many specialty pharmacies also have reimbursement specialists. They will work with you, your insurance provider, and government programs, such as Medicare, on insurance coverage of your costs.

Let the specialty pharmacy know of all other medicines and supplements you are taking. This is important because sometimes these items can interfere with each other, called drug interaction. To help avoid this, it may be a good idea to have all of your medicines filled at the same pharmacy, if your insurance allows it. This includes medicines for other conditions.

Notify the pharmacy of any allergies you have to medicines. Also, tell them what vitamins or supplements you are taking. Some vitamins and supplements may interfere with your cancer medicines.

Tell the specialty pharmacy staff about any side effects. By describing how you are feeling, the counselor can assist you with managing side effects. And, he or she can help you develop the best plan to take your medicines.

For example, if you feel nauseated after taking your medicine, the nurse or counselor may suggest that you take the medicine at a different time of day or take the pills with food.

If side effects do not go away or get worse, the counselor may work with the pharmacist and your doctor to switch you to another medicine.

Order refills before you need them. It is important to have enough of your medicine at home so that you can take your medicine on schedule without running out before your next shipment. If you plan to be away from home, the specialty pharmacy often can ship your medicines to another location. Ask the specialty pharmacy if they have a location where you are traveling. For medicines that require special care, such as refrigeration, it is important that you are there to receive the shipments. You will need to promptly refrigerate the medicines or perform any other special handling or storage requirements.

If you are injecting or infusing your medicines at home, ask for a training visit. A nurse or counselor can demonstrate the proper way for you to give the medicine. This includes handling the supplies such as needles, syringes, adhesive bandages, and alcohol swabs.

More Information

Tips for Managing Multiple Medications

ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Taking Your Medical Correctly (PDF)

Safe Storage and Disposal of Cancer Medications

Drug Information Resources