It’s no secret that the pharmaceutical world is hurting, especially retail pharmacy. I recently made the choice to leave pharmacy altogether. You could say I decided to take all my breaks and lunches at once, since I’ve never had one before.
No breaks and lunches might surprise you, but this is the daily experience of retail pharmacists. Bathroom breaks are just as scarce. You might think an eight-hour shift without a break or lunch is doable, but we are talking about twelve-to-fourteen-hour shifts where you never get to sit down once. I’ve come back from a two min bathroom break to a line of five or more people that needed the pharmacist with two calls on hold for me. There are so many tasks that technicians cannot do and that a pharmacists must be present for. That is why breaks can be so detrimental to workflow when there is only one pharmacist working. It makes you wonder, there are always two pilots on a plane, so why not two pharmacists in a pharmacy as well?
Not only do these poor work conditions affect the health and quality of life of the pharmacists, but it also affects the quality of care, as found by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy. One location in Virginia Beach was recently fined $470,000 for serious dispensing errors and cited systemic problems as the cause (Virginia Mercury). Pharmacists are overwhelmed and overworked and in this field of work, mistakes can be potentially life-threatening. These conditions should not be overlooked simply to increase profit margins.
Walk into any pharmacy and you can see they are “understaffed”. In fact, many pharmacies are closing due to staffing. Have you ever wondered where their prescriptions go? Other equally understaffed pharmacies must pick up the slack, or fear closing as well. This domino effect continues on, seizing companies that were once doing good in their communities.
Being understaffed isn’t the only problem. I worked in a store with ten pharmacy technicians and customers were still complaining about us being understaffed. We were actually fully staffed, but our corporate office just kept shoveling more and more new responsibilities our way. At one point, we had seventy vaccine appointments per day, two drive-through lanes, an average of 600-700 prescriptions a day, endless phone calls, drug utilization review calls, emails, meetings, staff training, packaging meds for delivery, and 500-600 pick-ups all in our 13 operating hours. This is all done by one pharmacist and a maximum of three technicians at a time, due to the pharmacist to technician ratios legally defined by each Board of Pharmacy. These ratios need to change.
As you can imagine, these staffing issues cause higher wait times which in turn frustrates customers during an already stressful period time. This was already a problematic dynamic in retail pharmacy, but the unprecedented pandemic anxiety has added an extra layer of tension to everyone’s state of mind. Pharmacists and technicians frequently get yelled at and insulted for disputes that are usually caused by this infrastructure.
Before the pandemic, our pharmacy offered over 15 vaccinations. Since 2020, we have added the COVID vaccine and drive-through testing. Our call volume drastically increased with customers calling for tests, vaccines, and advice. The corporate retail giant I worked for scheduled us twelve vaccine appointments per hour, yes you read that right. We also had one COVID test every 15 minutes, which caused longer drive-thru times and unsatisfied customers. On top of all of this, corporate was still expecting us to take walk-ins and keep a certain level of metrics. Metrics that are unsustainable under this infrastructure.
As you can imagine, customer’s patience drew thin, and anger was usually the chosen form of communication. With the combination of corporate exhaustion and unkind interactions, staff begins to feel overworked and underappreciated. Morale is down and mistakes begin to rise. This is not a safe combination for anyone involved.
The Pharmaceutical Industry needs a full facelift to relive these issues. Staffing issues need to be addressed and mandated lunch breaks need to be instated. If you are a pharmacist who would like to share your experiences anonymously, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) and the National Alliance of State Pharmacy Associations (NASPA) just launched the Pharmacy Workplace And Well-Being Reporting (PWWR) portal linked here.
If you would like to help, kindness goes a long way. Next time you pick up your prescription, please be nice to the employees and know that they are trying their best. We are all humans, and the world would be a better place if we all chose to be kinder to each other.
Written by: Jessica Porreca, PharmD; a pharmacist licensed in multiple states.
Kate Masters, Virginia Mercury October 11. “Understaffing at Some CVS Pharmacies in Virginia
Has Put Patients at Risk, Former Employees Say.” Virginia Mercury, 11 Oct. 2021, https://www.virginiamercury.com/2021/10/11/understaffing-at-some-cvs-pharmacies-in-virginia-has-put-patients-at-risk-former-employees-say/.
“Welcome To Pharmacy Workplace And Well-Being Reporting (PWWR).” PWWR,