February 2012


“The pharmacist of tomorrow is going to be unrecognizable to most of us. He might not be a vending machine, but he’s not going to be that quiet old white-haired guy up behind the counter, either.”  —  Jim Ammen as quoted on QuoteSea.

W.C. Fields in The Pharmacist, 1933

The profession of pharmacy is rapidly changing in the 21st century. Gone are the days past when there was a pharmacy on nearly every corner in town and the Rexall brand was known in every household. Independent druggists were first line caregivers in the community, often prescribing medications for illness and ailments when patients could not see a physician. Community pharmacists were seen as a pillar of society… independent, highly visible in the community and usually considered well off financially.

Hospital pharmacies, on the other hand, were usually found in the basement, with an existence almost unknown to physicians, nurses and patients alike. The hospital pharmacy existed, in the mind of many people, solely to perform the dispensing and delivery of prescription medications as ordered by the physician. And likewise, the hospital pharmacist often had an image to match. Their salaries even lagged behind those pharmacists in a community setting until fairly recently. But hospital pharmacist stepped up to the challenge.

Times are a changin’…

Hospital pharmacists began performing many clinical functions supporting the delivery of care in addition to the delivery of drugs. An increasing level in the sophistication and number of pharmaceuticals required an increasing level of knowledge and sophistication on the part of pharmacists as well. While the community pharmacist was still counting by fives and ‘lickin and stickin’ labels, hospital pharmacists were taking on greater roles in drug delivery and patient centric clinical functions. Adding to that the increasing numbers of chemotherapeutic agents, radiopharmaceuticals, biopharmaceuticals, nuclear pharmacy and technological advances in drug delivery have made hospital pharmacy a specialty at the very least.

We now see community pharmacists suffering from numerous attacks on their livelihood. Increasing numbers of third party payers, decreasing margins and higher stress and demand in the prescription filling process have fueled the frustration of many pharmacists:

“The word out in the pharmacy community is that the small pharmacist was sold down the river by the drug companies and the PBMs (pharmacy benefit managers)” — Doug Larson

“I’ve been a pharmacist for 40 years now, and Monday morning I didn’t want to come to work because I knew what would await me. Basically, we’ve got a travesty on our hands” — Charles Pace

“It’s every independent pharmacist’s worst nightmare. There isn’t one component that’s working. It’s so extensive that it’s hard to imagine it’s going to get fixed — Todd Brown   (all quoted from QuoteSea/pharmacists)

These and many other unrepeatable quotes and comments are being heard daily from pharmacists who are overworked and under appreciated, being pushed along towards burnout and increasingly locked into the ‘golden handcuffs’ of the chain pharmacy bullies of the industry. Is it any wonder community pharmacists are complaining?

“I’ve tried to maintain an uneasy balance between your friendly unassuming neighborhood pharmacist and Anthony Perkins in ‘Psycho‘ – Roger Bart, (check the date) September 29, 1962!!

Anthony Perkins as 'Norman Bates' - 'Psycho' 1960

Many of the remaining independents are on the verge of financial ruin. Those who work in chain drugstore settings are frustrated, confused and tired of the ongoing abuse they receive. It’s amazing that we don’t have more pharmacists going postal or psycho as a result of the stressful conditions they work in.”

What will it take to bring about the necessary change in the profession? Payment for cognitive services or medication therapy management services is a step in the right direction. Recognition as healthcare providers by healthcare, governmental and third party payers would also help change this environment. But what will be the driving force to secure the future of community pharmacy?

You Are!

We, who want to be the pharmacists of tomorrow, are going to have to step up and take the lead toward securing the profession. We can’t count on professional associations and lobbyists to do it for us. Many of our professional associations are being managed by non-pharmacists (and we complain about non-pharmacists in corporate managerial positions). New pharmacists coming into the ranks must be prepared to recognize the opportunities that exist. And like the rest of us, they also need to stand up for what is morally right for the profession. We all need to take a lead on providing care that is patient oriented and always look out for the patient’s interests, even when it might be contrary to the ‘business as usual’ profit driven policies of corporate pharmacy. Doing so will win their confidence and secure their advocacy for the services you provide them. If your patients are being served appropriately and their needs taken care of you can be sure their voice of support will be heard.

Step up and do the ‘next right thing’ when it comes to taking care of your patients. Look forward to and expect the changes to take place, but only after you have done your part. Our future will be what we make it to be. Each of you in the profession of pharmacy has an obligation to stand for what you believe. After all, if you don’t, who will?

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God heals, and the Doctor takes the Fees…
Benjamin Franklin: Poor Richard’s Almanack , 1736. 

Maybe old Ben Franklin even recognized the beginning of a trend in healthcare. It’s not the fault of the doctors per se but healthcare is not always focused on patient care, it’s business… big business. Non-profit hospitals used to be dedicated to giving appropriate healthcare to all, even those who could not pay. Now we see non-profit hospitals, formerly operated by faith based organizations, being turned into for profit corporate systems providing care to a community based on direction from share holders and management teams.

In Ben’s day the physician, more times than not, received payment in kind  from his patients.  A basket of eggs or sack of potatoes from the garden for minor services. Possibly the chicken itself; a goat, pig or cow for more major transactions. If the patient couldn’t pay, or pay in kind, they usually provided service later on to repay the ‘debt’ of receiving treatment and to express their gratitude. I’m sure that most patients were more than happy to repay for appropriate health care services in that day and age, especially when they survived and got better.

Life was probably much easier before health insurance:

Although the concept of being protected through health care insurance is a great idea it’s contributed to a big business mentality. Third party payers and corporate insurance companies are in it to cut costs and make money, or at least not lose money.

Yes, healthcare is big business. We don’t see the family doctor working out of his home doing house calls much any more. They’re usually affiliated with a hospital or group practice of multiple physicians. We don’t see many ‘mom and pop’ pharmacies anymore either. We now have the Walgreens, CVSs, Walmarts and mail order pharmacy. All of them along with pharmacy benefit management groups (PBMs) selling patient information to generate more revenue.  And with this type of change we’ve seen the transition from real patient care focused practices to enterprises designed to ‘drive’ healthcare services and generate profits to satisfy stockholders. Is this truly in the best interest of the patient?

Patient care seems to get lost in the healthcare world today. Even the patient centered medical home model (PCMH), while touting the focus on patient care, is really designed to manage healthcare costs. Accountable care organizations (ACOs) and continuity of care organizations (CCOs) basic premise is to control healthcare costs.  That doesn’t say much about patient care, does it. So when did we lose patient care and how do we get it back?

Having a mission statement does not mean fulfilling the right mission:

I don’t think that patient centered care is totally lost. But patient centered care must come from the individual providers. Now I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen. It just happens less often than it should. Those of us involved in healthcare, whether physicians, nurses, pharmacists or other auxiliary personal all need to be focusing what we do around the idea of what is best for the patient. Sometimes it means taking a stand for what is right for the patient, even if it’s not in the best economic interest of the healthcare machine.

Providers can be the stimulus that changes healthcare to patientcare. Focus on what is best for the patient in the long run. If the system is broken or fails to take care of people by following the usual and customary ground rules, changes need to take place. Decisions based on positive patient outcomes need to be made as opposed to decisions base merely on economic factors. Maybe if providers start doing this, with each patient, the system can be changed from within. One could only hope that by doing so we can change healthcare to patientcare.

I’ve been in the profession of pharmacy for over half my lifetime. I’ve seen the ins and outs of what happens in independent, hospital, nursing home and chain pharmacies. There are many problems that have plagued pharmacists over the years that have made it difficult at times to practice real, patient oriented pharmacy.  Unfortunately patient care sometimes takes a backseat to all the headaches and stress involved in the prescription filling process.

For most pharmacists the profession has evolved to a hectic paced, overworked environment. Many are filling hundreds of prescriptions each day, dealing with difficult insurance issues and coordinating the prescription filling process understaffed and over-pressured. There are almost always issues and disputes between the overworked support staff. And then there are the interactions with cantankerous customers or the nurse ‘know it all’ that really makes a pharmacist’s day.

All of this can lead to a pharmacy professional that is run ragged by the shear volume of the workload. We often have ‘management’ that thinks they know a better way to fill prescriptions more efficiently to give us time to counsel with our patients. We even have customers that want to weigh in on how to fill prescriptions better. After all, we’re just putting pills in a little bottle that came out of a bigger bottle, right? Oh, and don’t you dare put the blue pills in Mrs. Smith’s bottle that should contain pink pills. We’re still expected to be exacting and perfect in all we do. No wonder so many pharmacists are bald or balding due to the natural phenomenon of pulling one’s hair out.

But even with all this going on, your pharmacist should still be able to satisfy your need for personal pharmacy services. If not, you may need to consider finding a new pharmacist.

Here are three valid reasons why you should consider firing your pharmacist:

1.  Your questions don’t get answered properly. 

Yes the pharmacist is always busy, but they’re still obligated to answer your questions. We’re not talking about questions like “what aisle are the toothpicks on” or “do you know when you will be getting more toothbrushes in stock”. In most states pharmacists are obligated to answer your questions when you pick up a prescription. If your questions can’t be answered at that time, your pharmacist should schedule a time to sit down with you uninterrupted. If you can’t get the answers you need you should fire your pharmacist.

2.  You can’t get a prescription filled in a reasonable amount of time.   

Here again, pharmacies are usually a busy place. But that’s no excuse for a pharmacist to tell you to come back tomorrow for your antibiotic. I’ve witnessed pharmacists telling a mom or dad with a sick child the prescription will be ready in 3 hours… or even longer. A 24 hour pharmacy recently told a young mother with a prescription from the E.R. to come back after 3 a.m. There were no other patrons in the pharmacy when she arrived 4 hours before that. What’s he doing? Taking a 4 hour break or something? Prescription refills are a different story but if you can’t get your new prescription in a reasonable length of time you should fire your pharmacist.

3.  Your pharmacist ignores you or fails to recognize you as a patient. 

There may be more than one pharmacist at a pharmacy location. And every one of them will know by sight some of the customers at that store. We don’t always recognize all of the good customers, but we all seem to know who the bad customers are.  It’s easy to remember Jane Doe because she is the one who never remembers to call in her refill for birth control pills. We all remember John White who repeatedly complains that we shorted him on his Vicodin. But it’s difficult to remember those ‘regulars’ who rarely complain or make a scene.  Regardless, it is unacceptable for a pharmacist to ignore or fail to recognize a customer, good or bad. If you don’t get greeted in a cordial and respectable manner you should fire your pharmacist.

The bottom line: 

If you are still unsatisfied with the service you receive and your pharmacist is as generic as most of the pills on his shelves or breathes negativity with every other word you should find a new pharmacist. One who is willing to go out of his way to ensure you understand your medications. One who will see to it the staff can take care of customers in a reasonable amount of time. And one who will recognize you with a smile on his/her face even though they don’t remember your name.  They’re out there and ready to assist you in transferring your prescriptions to their pharmacy with a promise and commitment to provide the service you deserve.