NC pharmacists say understaffing in retail chain pharmacies could cause patient harm

Some pharmacists cited concerns before the pandemic.
One Charlotte area pharmacist told WBTV the industry needs to change to keep people safe and pharmacists wanting to work.
Published: Mar. 17, 2022 at 4:44 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Throughout the pandemic, health care workers endured long hours amid staffing challenges. The men and women behind the counters of local pharmacies also experienced the strain.

Several pharmacists spoke with WBTV after either cutting back on hours or quitting their retail pharmacy jobs, some citing concerns even before COVID-19 entered the scene.

One Charlotte area pharmacist told WBTV the industry needs to change to keep people safe and pharmacists wanting to work.

WBTV is taking steps to protect his identity because he fears retaliation for speaking out.

“So I’ve been working in pharmacies since I graduated in 2012,” he said.

He worked at Walgreens and then spent several years in the pharmacy at Walmart.

“It’s tough, mentally; it’s a toll,” he said.

He is a pharmacist because he loves helping people, but he said helping people has gotten a whole lot harder.

“You wish you could do more and you’re not given the tools,” he said. “We had some [days] where we would break 400 prescriptions and I’ve worked by myself. We of course had a couple of technicians, but you know, it was nonstop. Somebody has to take prescriptions in, sell prescriptions, and then the phone is constantly ringing.”

He says throughout his career he has felt pressure to not take breaks.

“They told us we could take a 30-minute lunch, but to do that we had to shut down, and almost daily we would get complaints because we had lines of people waiting on us,” he said. “That’s just kind of how it was.”

The pharmacist said he did not things could get any harder, but then the pandemic happened.

“We started doing the COVID shots, we started doing curbside delivery, we started doing mail-out delivery,” he said. “All these things were just extra, and they just got added on without any additional help.”

He said his biggest concern is the health and safety of customers.

“We worry that we’re going to make a mistake,” he said. “We’re having to multitask so much now that it’s just hard to know. A lot of times you leave at work and you go home and you’re just like, ‘gosh, I really hope I didn’t make an error. I hope everything was OK.’”

According to the findings from the 2021 National Pharmacy Workplace Survey, 88 percent of people working in pharmacies said inadequate staffing is likely to contribute to medication errors or near misses.

Years under the pressure of those high stakes are why he made a change within the last year. He dropped to part-time at Walmart and got a full-time job as a pharmacist in a Charlotte-area hospital.

He said if changes aren’t made within the chain pharmacy industry, customers will continue to be at higher risk.

“There also may be more errors made as people are kind of pushed to their limit with multitasking, and that kind of thing,” he said. “Hopefully not, but it could cause patient harm.”

He’s not the only one to step away from chain pharmacies.

After 25 years of sales and management experience between CVS and Rite Aid, Greg Deese left to open his own independent pharmacy.

He owns and operates Oakhurst Pharmacy in east Charlotte.

He said he is not surprised to hear that pharmacists are concerned about safety in retail chain pharmacies.

“No, it didn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “Because I mean if you think about it, pharmacists or health care professionals, and our number one goal is to fill prescriptions for patients in a timely manner. But accuracy, and you constantly battle that accuracy, versus quickness.”

Deese says it helps to have complete control over how the business operates.

“I just say I’m gonna hire somebody or we could do something different or open longer hours,” he said. “I think really proper staffing in my career again was not only how many people, but the quality of the people, the training of the people, and the support of the people.”

WBTV reached out to Walgreens, CVS and Walmart for a response to concerns from pharmacists.

A spokesperson for Walgreens told WBTV:

“Pharmacy quality and safety are always top priorities, and we continuously review staffing levels within our pharmacies in order to meet the needs of our customers and patients. Throughout the pandemic, our pharmacy staff has worked tirelessly while playing a critical role as part of the response effort, administering COVID vaccines and testing, in addition to providing routine pharmacy services. While we are grateful for their hard work and dedication, we also recognize some of the challenges facing our team members in the current environment.

We continue to take steps to help mitigate current staffing pressures, including hiring thousands of new pharmacy team members, adjusting vaccine appointment availability and store hours as needed and expanding remote pharmacy capabilities to help reduce workload.”

A spokesperson for CVS said:

“Early in the pandemic, we hired 10,000 pharmacy technicians to support COVID-19 activities such as testing and vaccinations. Through our nationwide virtual hiring initiative launched in September, we hired 45,000 new retail employees, including pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. Also, as of February 28, most of our pharmacies, including our locations in North Carolina, are closed from 1:30 to 2:00 PM local time for a lunch break. While we’ve always had a meal break policy, this pre-scheduled, uninterrupted lunch break across our pharmacies further supports our pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.”

A spokesperson for Walmart said:

“We put patient safety and the wellbeing of our associates at the forefront of any of the decisions we make related to our pharmacy business. We have several programs in place to make sure we are staffing appropriately, and our pharmacists are being taken care of:

  • For decades, we have had a policy in place to close the pharmacy for lunch break, one of the only retailers to do this.
  • We calculate staffing based on forecasted volume of each pharmacy on historic data and current trends, so we are prepared for high-volume periods, such as flu season.
  • We use an independent firm with experience in healthcare to help evaluate our staffing, so we have a third-party review of our staffing calculations
  • We have processes and systems in place for sharing important information between shifts, which is considered in the staffing calculations

Our staffing guidelines are just a starting point, and nothing can replace a pharmacist’s professional judgement, which is taken into account when assessing staffing.”

WBTV also reached out to the North Carolina Board of Pharmacy to find out how it is addressing safety concerns.

In a statement, executive director Jay Campbell said:

“The issues of pharmacist workload, burnout, and well-being – and their effect on patient safety – in the community pharmacy setting have been considered for years. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought concerns related to these issues to the forefront. Throughout the pandemic, North Carolina pharmacists across have gone above and beyond to care for their patients. Pharmacists across our state have performed countless COVID tests and provided life-saving vaccines and treatments to tens of thousands of our patients, all while providing traditional pharmacy care in their practices. The Board of Pharmacy is grateful for all that pharmacists have done and continue to do.

While grateful, the Board also realizes that providing these additional services have stretched pharmacists professionally and personally. The Board is working with a number of stakeholders to gather more information and to consider what options are available to address workplace conditions and practices that may contribute public safety issues.”

A spokesperson for the American Pharmacists Association told WBTV that the “APhA has been working on the well-being and resilience of the pharmacy workforce and practice workplace issues for a number of years.”

The association created The Pharmacy Workplace and Well-being Report (PWWR), which is a confidential service that which pharmacy personnel can confidentially report their positive and negative experiences. Reports are collected and analyzed by a Patient Safety Organization giving them all the legal protections of reports to PSOs.

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