Patients, Phones, and the Pharmacy

MARCH 05, 2018
Yesterday, I walked into our local bakery and saw this sign “Valued Customers—Please be Kind: Finish Your phone call BEFORE stepping up to the counter. Thank you!” I also saw similar signs in my daughter’s dentist’s office and my own dentist's office. I see similar signs everywhere—doctor’s offices, movie theaters, the list goes on.

One place I rarely see such signs? The pharmacy.

Years ago, when I worked for a chain, I printed out a polite sign with similar wording and hung it by the register. Soon after, our district manager was in the store, and promptly took it down. (He also took down my colorful sign I had proudly taped up in the public bathroom that the entire staff had to share with customers, which stated "if it’s brown please flush it down" but that’s another story.)

In this day and age, phones are a distraction for everyone. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I go into a store and I have to wait for the employee to finish texting so they can look up and help me. We live in such a different time. I remember when I was doing a rotation in my local Giant Eagle supermarket pharmacy in Pittsburgh in 2000, the hardworking pharmacist would only stop for about 3 minutes the entire day to take a phone call from her child, who had arrived home safely after school. We had no time for personal phone calls, there was no texting, no social media, no other apps to distract us.

Many pharmacies seem to have a cell phone policy for employees, as well as strict social media policies. No posting to social media, no taking pictures in the pharmacy, etc. This could be a HIPAA violation nightmare. Not to mention, pharmacy is a job that requires such intense concentration, having phones in the pharmacy can be a dangerous distraction.

In the independent pharmacy where I work, I keep my ringer on (and all other sounds off) in case there’s an emergency, but usually I make sure to leave my phone face down so I’m not tempted to check my texts or Facebook notifications. In fact, as I type this on my laptop, I just had to flip my phone over as group messages keep blinking on my phone.

I do use my iphone in the pharmacy for epocrates, or maybe to Google something, so phones can have their place. It is a balance that many pharmacy employees struggle with maintaining. I set out to see how pharmacists deal with the issue of patients on their phones. I see several issues that could be a problem.

I remember, years ago, I learned that at pickup you don’t want to ask yes or no questions. When someone is picking up, for example, the interaction should go like this:

Patient: Picking up for Smith
Pharmacy staff: What’s the first name?
Patient: John
Pharmacy staff: Address?
Patient: 6 main street
Pharmacy staff: date of birth?
Patient: 1/1/50

The interaction should NOT go like this:

Patient: picking up for Smith
Pharmacy staff: Joe?
Patient (distracted, on phone): Yeah
Pharmacy staff: 4 oak street? Date of birth 1/1/50?
Patient (still distracted): Yeah, how much?
The take away—the patient should be actively engaged and telling us what they are picking up, and not on their phone, distracted, half listening. In the second scenario, the patient could easily get the wrong prescription and who would be to blame? The pharmacy.

Another issue I see with phones—HIPAA. Say the patient is talking to a coworker on the phone and this person can now hear everything that is going on, they may hear private health information about the patient that the patient would never want to share.

Yet another issue—patient counseling. There are many requirements on first fill counseling. The pharmacist, who is also busy with at least 15 other things, should not have to compete for the patient’s attention. The pharmacist, who should be a respected member of the patient’s healthcare team, should be able to step over, and tell the patient the counseling points they need to know.

These are just a few things I thought of offhand, and I am sure that patients talking on cell phones can lead to many other problems.

So how do we deal with this?

I polled social media and it seems as if about half of pharmacies are allowed to post a sign. I have always found that a sign works as authority. If you say something such as “We need to see ID for that Percocet prescription,” the patient may look at you like you’re crazy, but say it while pointing to a posted sign, and it somehow carries more weight. Some pharmacists note that their management, as mine did at the time, do not allow these signs, saying it does not look “inviting or professional.” On the contrary, I feel a professional environment would indeed have such signs.

So, if you are allowed to post a sign in your pharmacy, I would do so immediately. Make it creative, make it funny, make it serious, however you want—just make it polite. I would post one at the drop off counter, one at the pick up counter, and one at the drive-through window. 

What to do when patients inevitably ignore your carefully created signs? Or if your store does not allow signs? Don’t give up. When I would wait on the car in the drive-through lane and the patient was on the phone and expected me to still help, I would cheerfully say, “Hi! Let me know when you’re done with your phone call! You can hit the button!” and walk away. They would quickly hang up. We would do something similar at the drop off and pick up windows—walk over and say “Hi! Let me know when you’re ready!” and then go back to our work until the patient got off the phone.

Many pharmacists in my social media groups love the idea of a sign, and express similar concerns about HIPAA and other issues when patients are on their phones. A fellow pharmacist estimated almost 1 in 5 customers at the drive thru are on their phone during consultation. I especially loved the response from one pharmacist. Although this approach might not work for everyone she clearly tells the patient, “I need you to finish your call now, because I need to tell you about your medication.”

Find a way to address this that works for you and your staff, and stick to it. There is enough to worry about in a pharmacy without having to worry about cell phone distraction as an extra factor. As long as you are polite but firm, patients will get the point and realize pharmacy staff deserve the same respect that bakeries, doctor’s office, and movie theaters request.

I also feel pharmacy management should support pharmacists who ask that patients refrain from using cell phones while interacting with pharmacy staff. Best of luck to you as you try to get your patients to disconnect, for even a few minutes.

Karen Berger, PharmD
Karen Berger, PharmD
Karen Berger, PharmD, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy in 2001. She has worked in community pharmacies for over 16 years as a Pharmacist in Charge, staff, and floater pharmacist for a large chain. Currently, she is a pharmacist at an independent pharmacy in Northern NJ. She can be reached at
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