Mistakes at the Pharmacy

photo of prescription bottle - mistakes at the pharmacyThe pharmacy I use, part of a huge national chain, is busy. Actually, busy is an understatement. Several times I’ve waited on hold on the phone, listening to annoying music, for over an hour. And every time I go there, I grumble to myself, and to anyone nearby willing to listen, that they need more employees. But I didn’t realize until recently that the overworked staff at busy retail pharmacies may incorrectly fill prescriptions due to working conditions and stressors. And it goes without saying, mistakes at the pharmacy harm patients.

It’s important to note that this post refers to retail chain pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens. The situation at independent pharmacies is likely much better, with less corporate pressures and metrics. Additionally, this post is not about pharmacies in inpatient facilities, such as hospitals and long-term care facilities. For information on medication errors in inpatient facilities, read the blogs listed at the end of this post.

What kinds of mistakes can pharmacists make?

Mistakes include putting the wrong medication in the prescription container (wrong medication, right label) and dispensing the correct medication but at the wrong dosage. And pharmacists can give a patient a medication intended for another patient (right medication, right label, wrong patient).

Patient harm from wrong medications.

Clearly, taking the wrong medication, or the wrong dose of a medication, can cause patient harm, ranging from annoying itching, to dangerous bleeding, heart problems and difficulty breathing. Moreover, medication errors can lead to patient death.

How often do retail pharmacists make mistakes?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know the number and severity of mistakes. For starters, many mistakes go unrecognized. Additionally, there are lax reporting requirements. Finally, many mistakes are hidden when victims or their families sign confidentiality agreements after settling with the pharmacies.

What’s going on in US retail chain pharmacies?

photo pharmacy shelves - mistakes at the pharmacyA recent The New York Times article revealed disturbing findings of an investigation involving a review of letters written by pharmacists to state pharmacy regulatory boards as well as interviews of pharmacists by The New York Times staff. The results should concern us all. Many pharmacists at large national chains worry about their ability to properly fill prescriptions due to working in understaffed, chaotic pharmacies. Why? There is too much work to accomplish and not enough staff. While you might envision pharmacists focusing all of their energies on counting pills and putting them in bottles, their jobs actually involve a myriad of tasks. In addition to filling prescriptions, pharmacists must also give vaccines, answer phones, work the register, handle drive-through customers and counsel patients. Additionally, they must call doctors and insurance companies.

And the hours can be grueling. Pharmacists often work long days, sometimes 13 hours. And they often work non-stop, without any breaks to eat or use the bathroom.

What are pharmacists saying?

According to The New York Times article, pharmacists from retail chain clinics in over 20 states have contacted their state pharmacy boards and associations to share their concerns and frustrations. The following statements were written by retail pharmacists to their state regulatory boards. Their level of concern is clear:

“We are being asked to do things that we know at a gut level are dangerous.”

“The amount of busywork we must do while verifying prescriptions is absolutely dangerous. Mistakes are going to be made and the patients are going to be the ones suffering.”

“My fellow pharmacists and pharmacy technicians at our breaking point. Chain pharmacies are preventing us from taking care of our patients and putting them at risk of dangerous medication errors.”

The pressure of metrics.

photo clock indicating pressure - mistakes at the pharmacyTo make matters worse, pharmacists often feel pressure to rush to meet corporate performance metrics, goals they characterize as unreasonable and unsafe. What do chain pharmacies measure? According to The New York Times article, chain pharmacies track and scrutinize nearly everything, including time taken to fill prescriptions, phone calls to patients, the number of immunizations given, and the number of customers signing up for 90-day supplies of medication.

In a pharmacist survey conducted by the Missouri state board, dozens of pharmacists said the focus on metrics threatened patient safety and their own job security. One wrote: “Metrics put unnecessary pressure on pharmacy staff to fill prescriptions as fast as possible, resulting in errors.”

Pressured to sell.

Pharmacies are businesses, and businesses aim to make as much money as possible. But in the world of prescriptions, it seems wrong that chain pharmacies pressure pharmacists to sell more seems wrong. For instance, chains pressure pharmacists to call doctors to refill prescriptions for patients who never even asked for refills. (Which wastes valuable doctor and staff time.) And, the chain pharmacies pressure pharmacists to ask patients to switch to 90-day prescriptions and to sign up for automatic refills.

What are the state regulatory boards doing about mistakes at the pharmacy?

photo austin TX government buildingUnfortunately, the state pharmacy regulatory boards fall short. Officials from several state boards told The New York Times they had limited authority to dictate how pharmacies operate. And sometimes the fox is guarding the hen house, as some state boards’ membership include representatives from national chain pharmacies. Finally, most state boards do not require pharmacies to report errors, nor do they conduct thorough investigations when they learn of errors. And if they do investigate errors, they focus on the pharmacist, not the workplace conditions.

What can you do to reduce your risk of mistakes at the pharmacy?

Clearly, the current culture at retail chain pharmacies increases the risk of medication errors. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of getting the wrong medication.

Switch pharmacies.

Consider switching to a small, independent pharmacy. Not only do they not have corporate metrics and pressure, you will likely develop a relationship with the pharmacist which can benefit your health. Before you switch, check with your insurance to see about coverage.

When getting a new medication:
  • Ask the doctor for detailed instructions on why, how and when to take each medication.
  • Write down the exact name (ask the doctor for the correct spelling), dosage and instructions. Bring this information to the pharmacy.
When picking up medications at the pharmacy:
  • Make sure you get the correct medication before you pay. Check the label to see if the name and dosage match what you wrote down at the doctor’s office.
  • If you get a refill on a medication and notice the color, size and/or shape has changed, talk to the pharmacist to be sure you have the right drug.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up! If something doesn’t seem right, or you are given a medication that you didn’t expect, say something to the pharmacist.

Learn more…

Read these blog posts to learn more about how to reduce your risk of medication-related issues:


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