Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A University of Iowa College of Pharmacy graduate’s innovative business sends pharmacists with immunizations directly to people who need them.

Pharmacists who work for Des Moines-based Vaxi Taxi have vaccinated people in their homes, on a minaret atop a mosque, and on a tractor. “I’ve climbed trees to get to kids in their treehouses. Or sit next to them on their couch while they play on an iPad,” said Casey Villhauer of Ankeny, who graduated with her PharmD in 2007.

She is the founder and CEO of the business that has struck a chord and hopes to expand across Iowa.

Through Vaxi Taxi, licensed pharmacists travel to get to patients and vaccinate them.

The business came into being from a recurring issue that Villhauer and her community pharmacist husband, Dustin, ’09 PharmD, were having with their oldest child. It was pre-pandemic, and Casey Villhauer was a stay-at-home mom to their three young children. It was flu shot season again, and their then-eight-year-old daughter was “incredibly needle-phobic.”

“It was the build-up,” she explained. “She would start talking about it and dreading the next year’s shot right after she got that year’s shot. We realized the worst thing was the hype of driving to the pharmacy or doctor’s office. Once we were there, it was all the people and the bright lights: It’s just really overwhelming when you’re already anxious.”

“Dustin and I decided, ‘we are done with this’.”

That year, their daughter was at home watching TV, and by the time she felt the sting of the needle, it was over and done. Her words afterward, according to her mother? “That was amazing.”

“That’s all it took to get her over the fear. It just takes that one really good appointment with no buildup, and they’re over it.”

Villhauer shared her daughter’s flu shot success story with her local mother’s group, and “people were begging us, ‘Please come to our house next,’” Villhauer said. “We started in our own little neighborhoods, and it just caught on like wildfire.

The business officially began in April of 2020. It operates “like Uber Eats for brick-and-mortar pharmacies,” said Villhauer. Due in

Casey Villhauer Alma Michelson
Casey Villhauer, CEO, and Alma Michelson, Director of Pharmacy Operations

large part to pharmacy middlemen between patients and the pharmacist, community pharmacists often earn money only if they stick to a very narrow skillset: Something the profession is working to address through grassroots initiatives such as Flip the Pharmacy.

Meanwhile, traditional pharmacist and technician burnout and stress is high, as what was once a stressful daily grind was amped up during the pandemic when Covid tests and vaccines were added to already-full plates of tasks.

Vaxi Taxi helps ease this burden for community pharmacies and gives them “the opportunity utilizes our services to expand what they can do in their communities, and their patient numbers and reach,” Villhauer said. “We centrally-coordinate customer attraction and retention. We act as their UPS, with an injection at the end.”

The business’ pharmacists-on-wheels are independent contractors: Mostly part-time, flexible workers who get to sites on their own set of wheelsor on foot in the case of the minaretand the business’ mobile equipment. Headquarters can “ping” them through a secure cell phone software platform, to offer patient vaccination opportunities. The contractor pharmacist positions offer work-life balance and the one-on-one patient time that is meaningful, she said.

No Vaxi Taxi workers have been hired away from community pharmacy positions. “One owns a yoga studio, and one writes medical literature. Two were retired, and one was a stay-at-home dad,” she said. “These kinds of pharmacists are flooding our inboxes. They are qualified, and can do the job, and patients are asking for their services.”

In just more than a year and a half, Vaxi Taxi has provided thousands of vaccinations and expanded its reach within Polk and its eight surrounding counties. Villhauer has a goal that its services will reach Johnson and Linn Counties and beyond. It has also grown to employ at least 27 total people. At last count, 13 of them were pharmacist contractors—including two full time workers in addition to Villhauer. The sum also includes nurses and nurse practitioners who assist with large clinics and “neighborhood shot parties”, pharmacy students, and data entry specialists.

Its healthcare workers give FDA-approved vaccines that have been prescribed by a physician, as well as flu and Covid shots and tests, and others authorized by the state in 2018.

“If somebody thinks they might have Covid the last thing we need is for them to hop on a bus,” said the CEO.

The service is also particularly helpful for older adults who do not qualify for in-home medical services, but still have issues that make them medically fragile to transport. It may be that they use oxygen tanks or other issues that can cause trouble when navigating stairs or getting being helped out of bed. “Because of mobility issues, many such patients haven’t had vaccines for three to five years. Covid brought it to light,” she added.

It is important to Villhauer to lend a hand to low-income households as well. She said it is good that roughly nine out of 10 Americans live within five miles of a community pharmacy. “But, if you don’t have a car, that’s still five miles, and you probably have multiple jobs to also get to in a day and maybe children to get to their destinations too,” she said.

The service is covered by major insurances and grant funding.