Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker is the founder of The Happy PharmD, which helps pharmacists create an inspiring career, break free from the mundane "pill-flipping" life. He is a Full-time Pharmacist, Media Company founder, franchise owner, Business Coach, Speaker, and Author. He's also the Founder of Pharmacy School HQ, which helps students get into pharmacy school and become residents.
I received quite a bit of feedback on my previous Pharmacy Times post, “10 Reasons Why Pharmacists Have Great Jobs.” Several readers commented that I am too young and inexperienced to make such assertions. A few claimed that the 10 reasons I cited don’t apply to retail.
So, I interviewed 3 long-time retail pharmacists to get their take on retail and the pharmacy profession.
Jason Poquette, blogger at The Honest Apothecary, was born in Chicago and raised in Southern California. He attended pharmacy school in Connecticut and now lives in Massachusetts with his wife and 4 kids. He works as the outpatient pharmacy manager and on-site consultant for growing the ambulatory pharmacy business of a hospital in central Massachusetts.
Corey Jahnke has been a retail pharmacist at large retailers for more than 25 years. He also has a basic understanding of how independent pharmacies operate.
Steve Leuck has worked in hospital and retail pharmacies in staffing, clinical, and management positions throughout his 28 years of pharmacy practice. For the past 17 years, he has staffed an outpatient clinic pharmacy for the local community hospital.
Now, it’s time to let the retail experts do the talking.
There are a lot of negative messages out there about retail pharmacy. I have read many comments on Facebook and in other forums that warn students to avoid retail. Is the negativity founded?
Poquette: I tend to take all such negativity with a grain of salt. It’s a venting mechanism, and frankly, I find some of it quite funny. As for a retail career, my own perspective is that not all retail settings are created equal. There are some retail settings that I would advise getting out of ASAP. Pharmacists working in such atmospheres need to start doing some serious job hunting and begin positioning themselves for something better.
When I talk to students today, I try to be honest with them about the job market and potential working conditions. I explain that there are some advantages to a medical career where you have a billable service that is detached from the supply of a product (i.e. a drug). That said, I think anyone with a passion for pharmacy should still pursue it, but do so in a way that limits your risk and maximizes your opportunities. Can you have a great and satisfying retail pharmacy career? Sure you can. Many have done it and are still doing it today.
Jahnke: Yes and no. Compared to say “the septic guy” or seasonal workers, it is a phenomenal opportunity. But the demands on your time and attention are tremendously high. As margins get squeezed, regulations intensify, and upper management continue to magnify, it is not even close to possible for high-volume pharmacies to meet the demands and expectations. The stress level can be very hard on one’s health.
Leuck: A good friend sent me a quote:
Medicine is not only a science; it is also an art. It does not consist of compounding pills and plasters; it deals with the very processes of life, which must be understood before they may be guided.
Yes, we are the gatekeepers of medications; however, we are also educators. Each and every prescription we fill has the potential to either help or harm the patient. If we, as pharmacists, do not feel that our environment provides us with the necessary tools in order to perform our duties in a safe, acceptable, and clinical manner, then we need to evaluate how we got here and what we are going to do about our situation.
Every single profession has its naysayers and complainers. It is my opinion that energy is better spent looking at what I did to get myself in this uncomfortable position, and what am I going to do to change my environment.
What's 1 aspect of your retail position that you enjoy?
Poquette: It is actually hard to pick just 1. I love the patients. Well, most of them. I also love building a team of great pharmacists and techs and developing practices to maximize our efficiency. I love the business side of pharmacy, as well. Being profitable is harder today than ever before. That challenge, along with multiple cups of coffee every day, keeps me going.
Another aspect of the retail career that I love is the opportunity it affords me to write about it on The Honest Apothecary. My blog leans heavily toward retail pharmacy issues and topics. I love sharing insights and perspectives on a profession I have been involved with in various ways since I was 16 years old.
Jahnke: Customer service and associate development.
Leuck: The clinic that I work in sees quite a few chronic pain patients. Yes, we do our due diligence with each prescription, sign contracts with patients, maintain open dialogue with prescribers, and follow PDMP monitoring. Regularly, I like to "check-in" with patients about their pain control.
We have an education process that we discuss with regards to non-narcotic and non-medication-related alternatives. Receptive patients take this information back to their prescriber. We will regularly see patients that have significantly decreased their narcotic pain therapy over the course of 3 to 4 months who are grateful for our discussion and follow-up.
What's 1 aspect of retail you avoid or strongly dislike?
Poquette: Probably the hours. Every job has its drawbacks. For the most part, retail pharmacy jobs are not 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. You will work some weekends, late hours, and holidays. That can impact your quality of life, but thankfully, I have a very understanding family.
Jahnke: The incredible amount of bureaucracy and the stress it creates.
Leuck: Regularly, we receive requests from patients to transfer their prescriptions from 1 of the large local chain pharmacies. One chain in particular will often put us on hold for an extended timeframe and then accidentally disconnect the line. It is very difficult and time consuming to get these transfers. We try faxing them for transfers and will typically wait 48 hours with no response. The frustrating part is that when this particular chain store calls us, they get a pharmacist on the line right away for a transfer to them.
I believe calling this particular chain store for transfers is my least favorite task. Many times it is easier to just call the physician and get a new prescription for the patient.
What's the 1 thing you wish to share with the next generation of pharmacists?
Poquette: I’ve been doing this retail pharmacy thing for more than 20 years. Here’s my advice: Be humble. Be a good listener. Take criticism well. Be proactive. Don’t settle for a job you don’t like, but also don’t imagine that any job is perfect. Own your career. Okay, that was more than 1.
Jahnke: They must manage their personal finances very well and live well below their means so that they never become stuck in a situation they hate or end up working tons of overtime because they are overextended.
Leuck: Becoming a first-string pharmacist takes education, desire, focus, and lots of work. The pharmacy profession has many well-qualified pharmacists. We are excellent performers with incredible attention to detail. Clinically, we are second to none, prescribe appropriate follow-up in all scenarios, and are comfortable with medication education discussions with medical and nursing staff. We are perfectly adept at patient counseling, understand that different patients require different levels of education, and are fluid and dynamic enough to overcome individual patient barriers and provide the information necessary to complete a medication counseling session at the pharmacy counter.
I encourage the next generation of pharmacists to take this to the next level. Take a look at the pharmacy world of today and define what your passion is. Take the time to become an advocate for your chosen area of expertise. Be the 1 that the others come to for questions about your chosen area of expertise.
What's the hardest lesson you had to learn as a retail pharmacist?
Poquette: Delegation. I’m a bit of a control freak, but I’ve learned over the years that delegating is critical for business and professional success and the development of your team. I do this much better today than I used to.
Jahnke: How to effectively prioritize and manage my attention. Your ability to focus, given the intense amounts of distractions, is severely challenged all day, every day.
Leuck: Performing the job of a retail pharmacist first and foremost requires an official understanding of all the technical work that goes on in the pharmacy, from insurance phone calls, to re-bills, to coupons, to ordering, to inventory management, to technician training, to customer communication. You are the professional and need to be responsible for the daily function of your store.
Your technicians are your lifelines, so treat them with the respect they deserve. Once you have a firm understanding of the technical aspect of the work, the patient education and counseling will follow. If it was easy, then they wouldn't call it work!