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REINVENTING ONE-STOP SHOPPING: The Role of the Grocery Chain Pharmacist

Susan Farley
Published Online: Wednesday, February 1, 2006   [ Request Print ]

WORKING INSIDE A supermarket may not be the first thing a pharmacy school student considers when he or she begins planning a career in pharmacy. If patient care and one-on-one contact with people in the community are important, however, then it should be. The local grocery store has evolved into a behemoth supermarket providing a variety of one-stop services such as a bank, a post office, dry cleaners, money wiring, a copy center, etc. This concept was developed to make life easier for people in the modern world, where long hours and long commutes put spare time at a premium. This is where the pharmacy within that supermarket becomes an important corner of the store. Here, pharmacists can connect with their patients on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Customer care becomes a top priority.

Award-winning Customer Service

One grocery chain that knows quite a bit about providing excellent attention to their customers is southeast-based Publix. Publix Pharmacy was ranked number-1 in customer satisfaction for the third year in a row in the Wilson Rx National Pharmacy Satisfaction Survey. ?Patient interaction is what we want our pharmacists to thrive on?that is our point of differentiation?customer service,? says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix. ?Pharmacists are a valuable health resource, particularly at Publix, where they have enough time to provide premier customer service. We provide ample support staff so our pharmacists can focus on our customers.?

According to Brous, Publix pharmacists deliver high-quality customer service by discussing drug therapies with patients to help manage disease and optimize overall health; by educating their senior population on the complicated Medicare benefit that began this January; and by answering questions on drug interactions, over-the-counter medications, and the differences between generics and brands.

Brous notes that pharmacy school graduates arrive at Publix with most of the knowledge and expertise needed to care for patients, fill prescriptions, and assist customers in managing their medication usage. Their new pharmacists train with more seasoned pharmacists in the same location where they will be servicing Publix customers. ?Here, they are trained on Publix policies and procedures, our pharmacy system, and our Publix culture,? says Brous. ?We are looking for friendly, caring, detail-oriented, and organized pharmacists. It is good if you are a ?people-person.??

Today, Publix Pharmacy employs more than 1300 pharmacists who have numerous opportunities for advancement, including pharmacy manager, assistant pharmacy manager, part-time pharmacist, or floater pharmacist?someone who fills in while pharmacists assigned to a store are on vacation or leave. ?We pride ourselves in using Publix pharmacists only?not temp agencies?to staff our pharmacies,? says Brous. Publix pharmacists also have opportunities to advance further into pharmacy supervisor, then divisional manager positions, as these positions become available. Potential advancement opportunities also exist in centralized support departments, which include managed care, procurement, integrated care, and technology. Because of the rapid growth within the Publix pharmacy system, advancement opportunities present themselves with increasing regularity.

As for continuing education (CE), Publix provides various informational materials and CE programs for pharmacists and technicians to access on a daily basis, as needed. These may include publications, Web site access, ?Webinars,? and occasionally, live CE programs.

Part of that training also includes conducting special clinics and screenings. Publix offers in-store cholesterol testing and bone density screenings where their pharmacists would have the opportunity to become certified to provide that service. Brous notes, ?We are always looking for additional services to provide to our customers.?

Above and Beyond

That sentiment is echoed by Robin Page, RPh, director of pharmacy operations at The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company Inc, otherwise known as A& P, SuperFresh, Sav-A-Center, Waldbaum?s, or The Food Emporium, depending on the region. ?As far as special clinics and screenings, we are willing to back our pharmacists on anything they want to try. The problem is getting pharmacists who want to do it,? says Page.

Interacting with the patients beyond in-store conversations is a big part of the A&P pharmacy. The A&P system of 211 pharmacies regularly sponsors what they call a ?brown bag.? This is where patients of a particular store are asked to go into their medicine cabinets and put all their medications into a bag and bring them into the store. An A&P pharmacist will sit down one-on-one with the customer and take a look at all of them and determine what is expired, what is being duplicated, what side effects are present, etc. These mistakes can be cleared up in a ?brown bag? session, which is an invaluable resource to the community, particularly the elderly population. Other outreach efforts include visiting senior homes for a session of ?Don?t Forget to Ask Your Doctor,? as well as blood pressure and cholesterol screenings.

?We are looking for pharmacists who are customer oriented. We look at what kinds of internships they have been involved with to try and find out how interested they might be in interacting with the patients,? says Page.

As for training, A&P offers 32 to 40 hours of training, depending on the volume of the store where the pharmacist will be working. ?Supervisors will stop in to get feedback from the pharmacists,? says Page. ?It is important that all our pharmacists feel comfortable in their jobs. You can progress from a pharmacist to pharmacy manager, to a supervisor pharmacist, to a category manager, to director of pharmacy, to the vice president of pharmacy. All of us have come from the pharmacist role...you do not have to report to a marketing manager who is concerned about retail sales.?

Page encourages the pharmacists to use the grocery store for its corporate power?the information technology, the computers, the buying capabilities, etc?but to treat the pharmacy as if it were an independent store. She encourages getting to know the patient population and then creating programs and services that would be useful to them. A&P will help their pharmacists develop any programs they need. The company?s challenge is to find those pharmacists who are willing to take that initiative. ?We do not want to bring in outside help to run these clinics and screenings?that defeats the purpose,? says Page.

Whereas the compensation and benefits package within a grocery chain is certainly competitive, one perk they can offer pharmacists is better hours. They are not open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. And because the pharmacy is located within a grocery store, the volume is less. This allows pharmacists to spend more time with their patients.

Page adds, ?Because you are in a supermarket, you are seeing your customers on a regular basis?sometimes daily, especially with elderly patients. Here, you can really get to know them, and you see them when they are shopping. If you see one of your patients with high blood pressure and you see they have pickles and potato chips in their cart, you can stop them and say something to them!?

Ms. Farley is a freelance medical writer based in Wakefield, RI.


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