Ask your Pharmacist

In deciding to pursue pharmacy, I had to address many of my friend’s misconceptions of this field, such as “Why do pharmacists need that much schooling to just bag pills?” and “Couldn’t a machine just do that job?” Likewise, I initially had perceived that pharmacists had minimal patient interaction and simplified their role to be merely proofreaders for doctors’ mistakes. However, after researching healthcare structure and shadowing pharmacists, I now realize the important role pharmacists fulfill in ensuring quality care for patients.

The mechanized image of pharmacists arises from the fact that people mainly interact with pharmacists in a retail environment. Increased healthcare coverage, while making medications more accessible, has transformed retail pharmacists into machines that whirl around and fill increasingly higher demands for prescriptions. Mercer’s College of Pharmacy’s Video contest winner coined this portrayal of pharmacists as “Script Baggers,” whose goal is to fill prescriptions quickly in order to get their paycheck. However, a closer examination of pharmacist’s role within the healthcare system reveals that pharmacists fulfill their goal— to improve patients’ health— through communicating with patients, other healthcare professionals, and healthcare panels.

From shadowing a hospital pharmacist, I realized that pharmacists do not just proofread prescriptions but communicate their expertise with doctors and other healthcare professionals to determine the best options for patients’ health, a decision that is not always clear-cut. For example, a pharmacist on the Pharmacists and Therapeutics (P&T) committee presented me the research data that revealed misleading drug promotion by Big Business. The data compared two drugs from the same pharmaceutical company: one currently supplied at the hospital and one advertised as being less harmful, though more costly. Breaking down the figures and calculations behind this improvement, he explained that the new drug only induced fewer side effects because the researchers had lowered the dose. After this pharmacist presented his analysis to the committee, the committee decided to keep the hospital formulary and scrutinize further drug marketing from this pharmaceutical company. Antithetical to being proofreaders, pharmacists play an active role in determining healthcare quality and have the expertise to evaluate drug treatments.

However, some people believe that drug evaluation lacks critical decision-making, given that online programs claim to complete the same task. For example, some patients and even healthcare professionals, rather than consult a pharmacist, choose to use sites such as drugs.com, which searches for drug interactions. Also, hospitals are adopting interfaces that can correct for common drug misspellings and input errors and send alerts for patients with abnormal vital signs. Yet, these advancements are resources and tools for both patients and pharmacists but are faulty replacements for a pharmacist’s expertise; no writer would rely solely on a word processor to autocorrect all possible language errors. Therefore, these people oversimplify the critical thinking that characterizes drug evaluation.

Given the importance of pharmacists and their role in healthcare, the question remains: how can pharmacists better communicate their expertise to improve patient health? First, the physical distance between prescribers and pharmacists is still prevents patients from perceiving pharmacists as a part of the healthcare team. Retail pharmacies have started to address this issue by opening locations inside and annexing hospitals and healthcare facilities, and this structural change has allowed pharmacists to better communicate with patients’ doctors and nurses and to better know their patients’ condition. In addition, pharmacists are now assuming more counseling and interpersonal responsibilities; for example, most people now go to their local pharmacy for immunization, a role that doctors used to exclusively fulfill. Pharmacy schools are likewise incorporating more patient-care courses into their curriculums. Therefore, in the future, pharmacists will be expected to counsel patients in long-term therapies and follow-up on patients.

Contrary to its mechanized misconceptions, pharmacy is an interpersonal profession and pharmacists play an important role in healthcare treatment by ensuring that patients receive the correct medication and complete their drug regimens. The next time you have a question about your health and medication, you should better appreciate the opportunity to ask your pharmacist.