As The New York Times has been doing of late with astonishing regularity and surprising frequency, the newspaper of record has at last gotten round to demolishing the retail pharmacy business.
In a front-page story on February 1, the Times shrieked, in its headline, that “Overloaded Pharmacists Warn They’re Making Fatal Mistakes.” The story proceeded to document at great length some of those mistakes, detailing how harassed and overworked pharmacists at such retailers as CVS, Walgreens, Publix and Rite Aid frequently misfilled prescriptions, causing unintended and unwanted reactions, including death.
The story spread the blame for these disastrous mishaps among “the struggle to fill prescriptions, give flu shots, tend the drive-through, answer phones, work the register, council patients and call doctors and insurance companies — all while racing to meet corporate performance metrics that they characterized as unreasonable and unsafe in an industry squeezed to do more with less.”
As is true with so much that the Times writes about these days, this “exposé” had a ring of truth to it. Retail pharmacists do indeed make mistakes, something they have in common with all professionals. They are, at times, overworked and overlooked, unreasonably and unfairly called upon to multitask. One pharmacist went so far as to write to the Pennsylvania Board of Pharmacy that “the amount of busywork we must do while verifying prescriptions is absolutely dangerous. Mistakes are going to be made, and the patients are going to be the ones suffering.”
The National Association of Chain Drug Stores became a part of this story when that body was asked to explain what has gone wrong. As it usually does, NACDS acquitted itself as well as could have been expected, explaining that, as is sometimes the case in any profession, mistakes occasionally happen. The key word here is, of course, occasionally.
This newspaper doesn’t have to defend the practice of retail pharmacy in America. For as long as anyone in the industry cares to remember, pharmacists have been ranked among the most trusted professionals in America. Overwhelmingly, even when stressed, they rise to the occasion, dispensing the right drug to the right patient at the right time. When they complain, as they frequently did in this article, it is often anonymously, at a time when using their name and identifying the retailer for whom they work might have helped curtail or control the mistakes that do occur. Pharmacists, after all, are human beings, and human beings make mistakes. Not often … but often enough for the newspaper of record to devote its front page and an interior spread to detailing some of the more egregious errors.
In their defense, the retailers did what retailers too often do: They attempted to justify the activities that take place behind and in front of the pharmacy counter to explain and defend the indefensible. As we all know, if one patient gets sick by ingesting medication designed as a cure, that’s one patient too many. And if one patient passes on by swallowing a drug not prescribed or dispensed to treat the malady the proper drug is generally used to treat, that’s reprehensible.
Typical of the Times, as it is in much of print journalism, this article is long on criticism but woefully short on suggestions for appropriate action. The story leaves the cures for this unacceptable malady to the retailers and, as is often the case when an accused party is cornered, what emerges are mostly alibis and excuses, when in fact most retailers, chain and independent, are fully aware that there is always room for improvement.
To be fair, it’s difficult for an independent store owner or chain executive to counter or answer the accusations of a South Carolina pharmacist who was quoted to the effect that “the mistakes I have seen occur in this environment are both frightening and understandable when we are under the gun to perform the impossible.”
The editors and reporters at Chain Drug Review don’t have to stand up and defend the practice of retail pharmacy in America. For more years than most of us care to remember, the profession of retail pharmacy has stood out as a beacon of enlightened performance in a medical profession that has too often failed to live up to the glorious prognosis its managers and practitioners have lauded and sometimes misrepresented.
In the end, retail pharmacy will overcome this biased and often unfair bit of reportage. It is too valuable, too important, too indispensable to the health of the American people to do less.