Pharmacy Times

SHATTERING THE MYTHS SURROUNDING INDEPENDENT PHARMACY

Author: Elizabeth S. Roop

INDEPENDENT PHARMACY LAYS claim to an $87-billion marketplace that includes 40% of the nation?s drugstores, yet many pharmacy students and new graduates overlook independent pharmacy as a career path, based on preconceived notions that it is antiquated, technologically backwards, and offers few opportunities for advancement.

Watching those myths shatter when students from nearby Butler University enter one of her 4 stores to begin their externship program is as much fun for Rhonda Eldridge, RPh, chief executive officer of Grandview Pharmacy, based in Connersville, Ind, as outperforming her retail chain neighbors.

?The students are shocked. It is not what they envisioned an independent pharmacy to be,? she said. ??Independents are the stores downtown that have not changed their carpet in 20 years; that is the view of many people. But those stores are out of business, and what are left are very vibrant, very active, and very aggressive stores.?

A look at the 2007 National Community Pharmacists Association [NCPA]-Pfizer Digest illustrates just how vibrant and aggressive independents are. Preliminary findings show that independent pharmacies make up 40% of the nation?s 58,661 drugstores and record annual pharmacy prescription sales of $81 billion. The average independent has pharmacy sales of $3.73 million and average prescription sales of $3.49 million. The average independent employs 13.7 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees, 3.3 FTE pharmacists, and 4.8 FTE technicians.

?Independents tend to whine about the doom and gloom themselves sometimes,? admits Eldridge. ?[But] the demise of the independent has been greatly exaggerated.?

A HIGH-TOUCH APPROACH

Like many of its independent counterparts, Grandview distinguishes itself by offering an array of high-quality clinical services with a distinctly high-touch approach. Among the value-added services are a thriving durable medical equipment division, respiratory therapy, intravenous infusion for home care, long-term care pharmacy, and compounding. Grandview also is certified for mastectomy, orthopedic fittings, and walking casts?all of which are in addition to medication therapy management (MTM) and Medicare Part D services.

Grandview has captured a significant share of the pharmacy market in the Indiana communities it serves, an accomplishment Eldridge credits with its focus on providing the highest level clinical and customer service possible.

?Here is the thing about independent pharmacy and pharmacy in general: 92% of all prescriptions are filled by third parties. There is not much cash business left. That means everyone is paying the same price, so we have to provide a better level of service,? she said. ?Seven out of the top 10 reasons people come to a pharmacy are service-related. What an awesome opportunity for independents. We do not have to compete on price; all we have to do is out-service [the competition]. If you cannot do that, you should go on home.?

According to Eldridge, independents like Grandview fill a need among today?s patients for clinical services that require more interpersonal communications than are possible in other settings. That is why her pharmacists provide as much education and counseling as possible, including Medicare Part D and MTM.

?We differentiate ourselves by being the most clinical, the most informed, the most educated, and the most customer-friendly we absolutely can be,? she said. ?You get that relationship?that tie-in?that you cannot get anywhere else. That is the key?that relationship and that ?high touch? that people are absolutely dying for?because they are not getting it in any other business, and I am not talking just about health care.?

?High touch? does not mean independents are also not high-tech, how- ever. Most invest just as much, if not more, into technology, compared with their retail counterparts. Grandview, for instance, was among the first to implement a pharmacy robot and is now fully computerized, including full bar-coding and imaging systems.

?We are very technologically savvy, but that is not where it is at,? said Eldridge. ?Technology is only an aid to good customer service and to the pharmacist and staff in terms of reducing error rates and improving accuracy and dispensing.?

REDEFINING CLINICAL

Because independent pharmacies are focused primarily on patient care, Eldridge encourages students to alter their definition of clinical to emphasize direct patient care and positive outcomes. Viewed in those terms, the retail setting and independent pharmacy offer more clinical opportunities than hospitals and other settings.

?Which sees patients more than any other? Which one lets you interact with patients and make the biggest difference right then? It is retail.We are the most clinical setting in the whole country,? she said. ?[Students] think independents are antiquated and in the corner, that they are demoted to working in retail. But you can only work here if you are the very best. You are not getting demoted; you are getting promoted.?

IS INDEPENDENCE RIGHT FOR YOU?

Eldridge encourages students and new graduates who have dismissed?or perhaps never considered?a career in independent pharmacy to set aside their misperceptions long enough to explore the opportunities it has to offer.

For pharmacists with a passion for clinical services and the desire to have a direct impact on their patients, independent pharmacy offers the same caliber of compensation and benefits as its larger retail counterparts, with the added bonus of an accelerated career path and the chance to have a say in the direction of the business.

?You are not taking a second-class job by any stretch of the imagination,? said Eldridge.

Added Jim King, Grandview?s director of human resources: ?Particularly at Grandview now, opportunities are fantastic because of the apothecaries we are opening. Pharmacists have the opportunity to manage that branch or location pretty much on their own. They are supported by the company and given a lot of resources, and as they learn how to do it, they have a tremendous amount of leeway and influence on that particular store.?

For those with an entrepreneurial spirit, there is a solid support system within the independent pharmacy community ready to help them determine if ownership is the right decision and to give them the tools they need to start off on the right foot, including Eldridge herself.

?I would strongly suggest that they mentor with another pharmacy owner. Talk to them, maybe even work with them a year or 2 to understand the business well enough to know if they really want to do this,? she said. ?If you investigate [independent pharmacy] and see what opportunities there are, you may find a whole new niche that you did not realize was out there. And if you find out you do not have that drive or that passion, you will still have learned a lot in 2 years.?