Study Examines “Pharmacy Deserts” in California

Study Examines “Pharmacy Deserts” in California

Dr. Cheryl Wisseh. Photo by Frank Armstrong

A study conducted by the University of California, Irvine (UCI), published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities on January 6, 2021, is the first study to examine “pharmacy deserts” in Los Angeles County, California.

A “pharmacy desert” is defined as a community in which the nearest pharmacy is at least one mile away. Cheryl Wisseh, PharmD, a health sciences assistant clinical professor of clinical pharmacy practice at UCI and the study’s first author, stated in the study’s release, “My goal is to bring these concepts together at the intersection of pharmacy practice, public health and social justice to reduce health disparities.”

The study found that the areas of Los Angeles County lacking access to pharmacies are characterized by social determinants such as denser populations, a higher concentration of Black and Latinx residents, lower rates of automobile or home ownership, higher levels of poverty, and higher rates of crime. “These social determinants of health compound the negative effects of pharmacy shortage through competing needs,” Wisseh said. “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.”

This lack of access to a pharmacy equates to fewer clinical pharmacy services, such as health screenings, vaccines and medication management. Pharmacies are a large distributor of vaccines across the U.S., which means that access to pharmacists is even more crucial to the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in communities that are already at most risk of COVID-19 infection.

“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 UCI’s School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences in a press release.

Dr. Wisseh plans to expand upon the study on a larger scale—perhaps across all of California—to examine how pharmacy deserts contribute to whether minority communities take medications as prescribed and investigate disparities in available medications within pharmacies.

—Reporting by Hank Trout


Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick Greathouse.