Specialty Pharmacies and Cancer Treatment: 3 Things to Know

November 9, 2017
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

If you need a special cancer treatment outside of a hospital, your doctor might send you to a specialty pharmacy. These types of pharmacies offer extra services beyond usual medications to help patients with complex treatments for complicated conditions, like cancer.share on twitter

What is a specialty pharmacy?

Specialty pharmacies provide medicines that may not be available at typical pharmacies, like immunotherapy drugs. Providing these medications through a specialty pharmacy ensures that they are delivered properly and safely. The professionals who work at a specialty pharmacy include pharmacists, counselors, registered nurses, and case managers. Pharmacists on these teams often have completed special training in oncology, compounding or medication therapy management, and/or specific problems like infectious diseases.

You might need to go to a specialty pharmacy if your medicine must be specially mixed or stored or requires some kind of special handling. Specialty pharmacies are also used if your doctor has to work closely with the pharmacist to adjust a dose or obtain special approval of a drug. You may also need to go to a specialty pharmacy if your prescription requires an injection or infusion given at home.

Specialty pharmacy team members work together to:

  • Help you learn how to take your medication as scheduled

  • Change drug doses or schedules to avoid or reduce side effects

  • Dispose of waste properly

  • Teach you how to inject, infuse, and/or store medicines at home

Where can I find a specialty pharmacy?

Specialty pharmacies often are located near or in hospitals or cancer treatment centers. Your oncologist might refer you directly to a facility that already works with your oncology practice. Some large cities have many specialty pharmacy locations, and you may find listings through your insurance company, for example.

Sometimes, specialty pharmacies do not have a “brick-and-mortar” location. These pharmacies help patients by:

  • Mailing prescription medicines directly to your home

  • Providing a support phone line to answer your questions about your medicines

  • Offering scheduled (such as monthly) counseling sessions by phone or video

How do I work with a specialty pharmacy?share on twitter

Remember that the specialty pharmacy team is there to help you during your cancer treatment.  To get the most benefit out of this relationship:

  • Talk to your insurance provider first. 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.

  • Check out the pharmacy website. Visit the website, especially the FAQ section, to learn how to contact the staff and about general cost questions. If you need a referral, you may be able to the download the forms from the pharmacy’s website.

  • Ask about counseling and support services. Many specialty pharmacies offer this type of support to patients, including phone support to answer your questions. Many also have reimbursement specialists to help you pay for the medications.

  • Bring a list of all other medicines and supplements you take. Even if you shared this with your doctor already, it’s important that the pharmacy team knows this information as well. Sometimes other medicines, vitamins, and other supplements can interfere with each other, called a drug interaction. To help avoid interactions, see if it is possible to have all of your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy.

  • Tell the pharmacy team about any side effects. The pharmacy team can help you develop the best plan for taking your medications and managing side effects. Do not be afraid to describe how you are feeling.

  • Order refills before you need them. It’s important to have enough medicine at home so that you don’t run out before your next shipment arrives. Find a reminder system that works for you, such as a repeating alert on your computer’s or phone’s calendar.

  • Plan ahead when traveling. If you will be traveling, 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 shipment. You will need to promptly refrigerate the medicines or perform any other special handling or storage.

  • Ask for a training session or visit to learn how to inject or infuse a medicine at home. A member of the pharmacy team can show how to properly and safely give and handle the medicine.

Throughout your cancer treatment, don’t forget that the pharmacy team is there to help. These experts can help you understand and use cancer medicines correctly. They work carefully with you and your doctor to answer questions, give the right doses of medicine, and manage any side effects.