One million Chicagoans have no corner drugstore

Dima Qato, assistant professor of pharmacy systems, outcomes and policy.

Dima Qato, assistant professor of pharmacy systems, outcomes and policy, found many Chicagoans live in “pharmacy deserts.” Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services


Dima Qato knows that despite the ads, there isn’t always a pharmacy on the nearest corner.

She, along with colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago and collaborators at Brown and Northwestern universities, have mapped proximity and access to drug stores in neighborhoods across Chicago.

They found that nearly one million people in the south and west sides of Chicago live in “pharmacy deserts,” where just getting to a drug store poses a challenge. They defined having no pharmacy within a half-mile as a pharmacy desert for a low-income community with limited vehicle accessibility; for communities with adequate vehicle accessibility, the defining radius extends to a mile.

While prescription medications are widely used in the U.S. – nearly 70 percent of Americans have at least one prescription – they are frequently underused.

“There are persistent racial and ethnic disparities in the use of prescription medications,” said Qato, who is assistant professor of pharmacy systems, outcomes and policy in the UIC College of Pharmacy. “The south and west sides of Chicago are made up predominantly of black and Hispanic residents,” she said, and attempts to explain medication underutilization have focused “almost exclusively” on drug affordability.

“However, there are barriers other than cost in accessing medications.”

In a new study published in the November issue of the journal Health Affairs, the researchers used data from the American Community Survey, the Census Bureau and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to identify community characteristics and pharmacy locations in Chicago.

Between 2000 and 2010, Chicago’s white communities saw a 20 percent increase in their number of pharmacies. The number of pharmacies in Chicago’s black or Hispanic neighborhoods did not increase, Qato said.

Among the nearly 1 million people who lived in Chicago’s pharmacy deserts, more than half lived in black communities, she said.

Disparities in medication use and health outcomes may worsen if future policies continue to focus exclusively on insurance coverage and fail to ensure the geographic accessibility of pharmacies in minority communities, Qato said.

“Our findings could inform strategic decisions about the geographic distribution of pharmacies – for example, the incorporation of pharmacies into newly developed community health centers that are expected to expand in designated Medically Underserved Areas as a result of the Affordable Care Act,” she said.

Co-authors on the paper were Dr. Martha L. Daviglus, Jocelyn Wilder and Todd Lee, all of UIC; Danya Qato, Brown University; and Bruce Lambert, Northwestern University.

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