UPDATING THE CORNER DRUG STORE

Susan Farley
Published Online: Wednesday, February 1, 2006

IN THE 21ST CENTURY, THE notion of a "quaint corn er drug store" has become a thing of the past. Customers no longer sit and relax at a counter and order a malted while waiting for their prescriptions to be fill ed. Now, when efficiency and convenience are paramount, the pharmacy's soda fountain has been replaced by an ATM and a Kodak picture maker. These modern conveniences, which also include shelves of groceries, electronics, and other household items, are what keep customers loyal to their large local drug store chains. Just as important are the personal service and special attention to a patient's medication that made the corn er drug store so important to its community.

MAINTAINING TRADITION IN A HIGH-TECH SETTING

Longs Drug Stores pride themselves on providing that corner drug store service for their customers. Founded in 1938, Joe and Tom Long were among the first in the industry to institute the notion of self-service in a retail drug store setting. Now, more than 470 stores are open in California, Hawaii, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, and Oregon. By emphasizing their tradition of treating their customers the way they would like to be treated, Longs' pharmacists have established them selves as quality caregivers within their communities. This is one way Longs has been able to attract top pharmacists to establish their careers with the popular drug chain.

Consumer Value Stores, otherwise known as CVS, began selling health and beauty supplies to New Englanders in 1963.By 1967, they had opened their pharmacy department, and by 1999, they had developed www.cvs.com, the first fully integrated on-line pharmacy. Today, CVS operates more than 5000 stores nationwide. Their mission, "to be the easiest pharmacy retailer for customers to use," is ongoing as they develop new strategies to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

Walgreens also strives to maintain its high level of personal service along with its dedication to advanced technology. By 2010, there should be roughly 7000 Walgreens stores delivering innovative ways to satisfy their customers' needs. One example is Walgreens' Intercom Plus, a computer system for filling prescriptions that links all its stores within a single network. In fact, Walgreens is the largest private user of satellite technology (second only to the US government). And now, with the ability to fill prescriptions quickly at www.walgreens.com, the latest piece of Walgreens advanced technology is in place.

TRAINING

How do new pharmacists fit into these high-tech juggernauts? According to Amanda Bidlencik, manager of pharmacy relations at Walgreens, recent pharmacy school graduates receive a minimum of 2 weeks of training when they begin their careers at Walgreens. The training period combines an interactive CD-ROM program teaching them how to use the Intercom Plus system, along with on-the-job shadowing of experienced Walgreens pharmacists.

According to David Valencia, vice president of pharmacy operations for Longs, many of their pharmacists begin at Longs as first- year pharmacy students as part of a 7-year internship program. Longs is active in recruiting and job fairs, looking for "professionalism, integrity, honesty, students with a passion, someone who loves pharmacy not as a job, but as a career."

CVS has a similar training program. Papatya Tankut, vice president of pharmacy professional services for CVS, says, "We encourage pharmacy students to work as interns while attending pharmacy school. We offer a structured undergraduate intern training program that is tailored to the year of school they are in." The CVS program combines classroom instruction, on-the-job training, and computer-based training that teach the systems and processes unique to the company. Upon graduation from pharmacy school, CVS interns complete a comprehensive 8-week, structured graduate intern-training program. Carried out under the supervision of a training pharmacist, the program provides them with the skills and competencies necessary to make a successful transition from pharmacy student to licensed pharmacist.

THE CAREER

Pa rt of that education is learning all aspects of the job. Managerial skills in a pharmacist continue to be a vital part of a pharmacist's repertoire. To supplement on-the-job learning, Longs offers programs and classes to help pharmacists learn the financial aspect of the business.

For many pharmacists, a typical career progression may begin as staff pharmacist leading to pharmacy department manager, pharmacy supervisor, or district manager, regional supervisor, and then perhaps vice president of pharmacy operations. Last year, Walgreens promoted 800 pharmacists to pharmacy department managers. Within a large drug store chain, pharmacists will find themselves in many key roles?whether it is part of managed care, marketing, information technology, e-commerce, purchasing, legal, real estate, or business development.

In fact, Longs' senior executive in charge of business development is a pharmacist. The career path is not merely retail pharmacy. "In these positions, pharmacy experience is an invaluable asset to helping CVS/pharmacy develop programs and policies that best meet the needs of our customers and patients," says Tankut.

PATIENT INTERACTION

CVS/pharmacy boasts a workflow system that enables pharmacists to spend a majority of their time interacting with patients. Technicians and support staff in the pharmacy receive several months of detailed training and work very closely with pharmacists to do the basic work of data entry, retrieving medication from shelves, and counting pills, says Tankut. "This allows the pharmacists to spend more time checking a customer's history for possible drug conflicts and talking with customers about their medications," she adds.

"Because we are a community pharmacy chain," says Walgreens' Bidlencik, "there is patient interaction on a day-to-day basis. It can be as simple as counseling a mother or father on how to properly administer an antibiotic to their sick child, to more complex issues, such as counseling a newly diagnosed diabetic on the proper use of their glucose monitoring system. Because the technology of our pharmacies is so far advanced, it allows our pharmacists to spend more time with their patients and play an important role on their health care team."

As the pharmacy industry asserts itself in the overall mix of managed care providers, Longs is working with health care providers for compensation for cognitive services while remaining formulary-compliant. "We understand that when patients are taking their medications correctly, there are fewer emergency room and physician visits," says Valencia. "We are able to help manage a patient's therapy, which reduces health care costs. We have a special program where we are working with indigent children who are asthmatic. We extend our hand to prevent major crises."

Longs also participates in collaborative agreements to help special disease states such as asthma, hypertension, and elder care. "We establish educational clinics for pharmacists to get out and help with immunizations, cholesterol screening, blood pressure testing, etc. We prepare special packaging for the elderly. Pharmacists can get certified in immunizations and diabetes care. We encourage our pharmacists to take these classes," says Valencia.

CVS' Tankut agrees, "We encourage our pharmacists to get involved in the community to provide services to our patients. Some of these services include educational outreach programs at nursing homes and high schools, blood pressure screenings, cholesterol screenings, and attending health expos and conventions. We are also rolling out pharmacist- administered immunization programs in several states across the country."

THE ROLE OF THE PHARMACIST

Teamwork is an important goal of the Walgreens pharmacist, as working with physicians and nurses is an important aspect of the job. "We also look for individuals who are patient-focused, who like to spend time with their patients counseling them on their medications and addressing their needs. We are looking for individuals who are motivated, professional, and knowledgeable and who are dedicated to promoting the profession of pharmacy as mu ch as Walgreens is," says Bidlencik.

At CVS, "We look for pharmacists who are knowledge able, empathetic, and compassionate, as well as those that have a strong de sire to serve our patients and meet their needs. We look for candidates that are self-motivated, innovative, and able to quickly establish an emotional connection with customers and colleagues alike," says Tankut.

Valencia, who began his career as a professional pharmacist 32 years ago, has owned his own drug store, has worked for a hospital pharmacy, as well as a large grocery chain, before taking over as Longs' vice president of pharmacy operations. "With any career path, it boils down to patient care. No matter what, it is still basically patient care."

As for the future of the pharmacy industry, Valencia considers one of the biggest challenges to be making sure everyone has health care. "We continually strive to make sure people get the best health care they can. [Pharmacists] are going to be relied upon to make sure patients stay compliant. That is a major challenge. Other people worry about the costs, but as long as we focus on patient care, we are doing our jobs."

"When you think about it," he adds, "pharmacists are the most accessible professional out there. You have to make an appointment to see anyone else?a physician or a lawyer? but a pharmacist is always available to talk to you."

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




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