Drugstores slow to make headway on staffing issues – Boston News, Weather, Sports

Joan Cohrs missed her chance to get a prescription at her usual drugstore by about 30 seconds.

Shortly after a metal curtain descended, Cohrs went to the counter of a CVS pharmacy in Indianapolis and closed it for lunch. She didn’t mind. The 60-year-old said she feels compassion for people in healthcare.

“They definitely need a break,” said Cohrs, who was working at an assisted living facility when COVID-19 struck.

A rush for vaccines, virus testing and a busy flu season began overwhelming pharmacies more than a year ago, forcing many to close temporarily when workers were unavailable.

Big drugstore chains have raised wages and promised contract bonuses to hire workers. They’re also emphasizing lunch breaks and sending routine prescription work to other locations to improve conditions at their pandemic-hit dispensaries.

Still, temporary closures persist and experts say major changes are needed.

“There is no shortage of pharmacists. There is simply a shortage of pharmacists who want to work in high-stress environments and don’t have the resources,” said Richard Dang, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California.

Drugstores rely on pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to fill prescriptions, answer phones, work the drive-thru window, administer vaccines, and run tests.

They also ask her to manage a growing amount of patient health. Pharmacists in many stores are now helping people quit smoking and monitor their blood sugar. And companies like Walgreens are urging them to work more with family doctors.

Pharmacists can also now test for COVID-19 and then prescribe medication, a process that can take 20 minutes or more.

Empowering pharmacists to have a greater impact on public health is “great,” said Stefanie Ferreri, a professor of pharmacy at the University of North Carolina. But she added that “the workforce wasn’t quite ready.”

Pharmacies, like other businesses earlier in the pandemic, have been hurt because employees who have contracted COVID-19 — or those who have been in close contact with someone who has — had to stop work for a few days. The stress also left many pharmacists and technicians feeling burned out and looking for other jobs, industry observers say.

According to the Pharmacy Workforce Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks vacancies, the number of retail pharmacist job postings increased by 63% from 2020 to 2021.

Walgreens executives said Thursday they added a total of 600 pharmacists in the recently completed fiscal first quarter. But staff shortages are still forcing the chain to reduce hours at some pharmacies.

A company representative declined to elaborate, calling it a fluid situation.

In addition to the lack of staff, the pharmacies also have to contend with a sparse reimbursement of prescriptions. That makes it difficult to raise pay to compete for employees, said Douglas Hoey, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association.

“When almost everything goes up in price, pharmacies are still getting paid like it’s 2019 or 2018,” he said.

Walgreens is opening processing centers to fill some of the routine prescriptions stores receive from patients with chronic conditions. Company leaders anticipate that these centers will eventually absorb about half of the prescription volume from their stores.

The company also said in October it would eliminate all “task-based” measurements that are part of performance reviews for pharmacy employees.

CVS Health is attempting to spread the work of data entry and prescription verification across multiple locations to reduce the burden in busy stores.

In addition, the company began emphasizing the half-hour lunch breaks in February.

These have limited value, according to Bled Tanoe, a former Walgreens pharmacist in Oklahoma City. She said customers often arrive just before the pharmacy closes and eat during breaks.

And the branch employees often catch up on their work during this break.

Tanoe, 35, said she left drugstores to work at a hospital in 2021 because requirements became “impossible”. She and others say bolder steps are needed to improve pharmacies. Pharmacists should be able to temporarily close counters or cancel some vaccination appointments if the workload becomes overwhelming, Tanoe said.

“A pharmacist whose license is on the line has to be the one navigating and dictating what’s happening in the pharmacy on a daily basis,” she said.

Dang pointed out that a relatively new California law prevents drugstore chains from setting quotas on how many prescriptions a pharmacist fills during a shift.

He also said drugstores simply need more staff behind the counter as they add services. He found that the larger chains are more inclined to operate drugstores with only one pharmacist.

For a pharmacy to operate, at least one must be on duty.

Ferreri would like more drugstores to schedule appointments for regular customers. This gives pharmacists a predictable workload and more time to fill and review prescriptions. It also reduces trips for customers and can help them keep track of refills.

Those appointments relieve stress, said Jessi Stout, owner of Table Rock Pharmacy in Morganton, North Carolina.

“It’s not like the patient is there waiting for you to fill 15 prescriptions at once,” she said.

One of Stout’s regulars, Debra Bowles, calls the free program “priceless.”

She refills about six prescriptions each month and has her mother participate in a similar program at another pharmacy.

“It makes caring for people who can’t take care of themselves a lot easier,” said the 65-year-old.

While some pharmacies are changing the way they work, customers can help too. Ferreri recommends giving pharmacies a few days to refill a prescription rather than waiting for the last pill.

Patience is also required, said Brigid Groves, an executive with the American Pharmacists Association. She said she’s hearing more about customers venting their frustrations on pharmacy staff about delays or drug shortages.

“I think on both sides of the counter we all need to have grace and recognize that this is a very challenging and stressful time for everyone,” she said.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Sarah Y. Kim

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