What It's Like Being a Community Pharmacist

What It's Like Being a Community Pharmacist

Trying out the role of pharmacy technician is how some students become full-fledged pharmacists. At least, this was the case for Anne Ange three decades ago."I always had that interest in, 'Hmm, what’s going on back in the pharmacy?'" said Ange, whose second job (after working at Kentucky Fried Chicken) was as a 17-year-old cashier at Hook's-SuperRx in Port Huron, Mich. "So that’s how I ended up getting to be a pharmacy tech, because you didn’t have to be licensed. I learned everything about pharmacy before I went to pharmacy school, and I’ve always encouraged kids: If you have any interest in pharmacy whatsoever, try to get into one, and see it beforehand. You’ll know if you like it -- if you can handle it -- basically by working a summer." Ange, a mother of two and a professional for 28-plus years, gave us a look at her career path and life-work balance.

This interview was condensed for clarity. To contribute to ValuePenguin’s coverage on careers, follow us on Twitter @VP_Careers, and learn more about our guest, @anneangerph.

What is your memory of your pharmacy education?

Pharmacy school itself was quite a challenge. When we first started out, I believe the first number of students in our class was around 138, and I think about 89 of us made it through it. They pretty much weed you out in that first year: You’re hammered really hard, obviously with all the chemistry. It was very, very frustrating for me. I remember driving home and crying, getting home and saying, “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” The second year, when you go into more of the pharmaceutical and the pharmacology of how things work, things kind of come into focus. Then you see the light at the end of the tunnel, whether you’re in a hospital setting, or retail setting or research setting.

When I went to school, it was only a five-year program, so in my final year, in 1988, everything just kind of hit home: “Oh my gosh, now I see how all this works together.” I graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in pharmacy, and now most students will have a Pharm. D., which is a doctorate in pharmacy. They actually have an extra year to go. I believe most schools now are six-year, and it may go to seven years: three years undergrad and then four years actually in the pharmacy school itself.

Did you have internship experience during school?

My last year of school is when we got our rotation. So that involved working at a retail pharmacy, working at a hospital, and then in turn learning about research. And on top of that, we were required to do 1,000 hours. That’s how that worked. I just came home after I graduated, and within a month I bought a house, a car, and a dog. And I worked back at Hook’s-SupeRx for about a year because they had a program where if you worked so many months or years they would pay for your last year of college.

What was your next stop?

Then I left to help open another pharmacy. I went to what was called Arbor Drug. It was a very small chain; I believe there were about 489 stores total. I loved that place: You knew everybody; it was a very personable atmosphere. I went with them and opened up a store, and that was probably a mile from Hook’s-SupeRx. I stayed there for quite a while, for about ten years, but about seven years into that, CVS Pharmacy bought Arbor Drugs. So I worked for CVS, and in that period of time had my first child. The last year at CVS, I had my second child and I wanted to go part-time, and they wanted to keep a full-timer there. So I hopped next door, literally next door, to a place called Farmer Jack’s.

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Farmer Jack’s was a grocery store. I loved that pharmacy. It was a very intimate feel, lots of time for patient consultation. What happened was, obviously, when we got a Super Walmart, a Sam’s Club, a Super Kmart, it pushed the little grocery stores out of business. When Farmer Jack’s closed, I took about a year off. Then I ended up getting hired by a national chain, and I’ve been working for it in the eight years since.

Why have you stayed in the retail realm over the years?

For me, personally, I like the one-on-one contact with people. I’ve always been a people-person. Port Huron is relatively a small town in Michigan, and for me, working in a small town and growing up here my whole life, it’s given me the opportunity, having worked in retail pharmacy, to have closer relationships with my patients. And then, in turn, sometimes with their whole families. Now I’m filling scrips for people who have children now. It’s allowed me to provide a higher level of care, both on a professional and a personal level. That’s basically why I’ve stuck with retail. I’ve thought about working at a hospital a few times, and I think for me, I just don’t know if that’s my niche. What I’d like to do eventually, I’d like to end up teaching at the college here, junior college.

How has your job changed over the last three decades?

There’s a huge difference between 28 years ago, when our main duty was the consultation, so we had time to do that. Our average prescription dealing was -- let’s say in a 10-hour, 12-hour, 14-hour day -- 120, 140 scrips maximum. Now, per day, we’re cranking anywhere between 400 and 500 scrips a day. On top of that, I want to say technology has been a blessing, and that it hasn’t been. Years ago, when I started in pharmacy, we had typewriters there, and we were just starting to get a computer. And with technology, obviously things are easier at hand, for us to look up things.

Now we have our drug books right online, it’s so easy to answer things. Twenty-eight years ago, we had what was called a PDR, which is a Physician’s Desk Reference. That was your pharmacy bible. When somebody asked you a question, you couldn’t go to the computer and punch in a drug interaction. You literally were using your brain. So it’s a little bit different that way. I do want to say that it’s very helpful that we do have this technology now, because we don’t have time to go to the PDR; we really wouldn’t have time. It’s just a lot of changes: some good, some bad.

How have the bad changes affected your outlook?

To be perfectly honest with you, the job itself has become increasingly stressful. It’s definitely not as laid-back as it was years ago. You don’t have that time to spend with your patients, to where there were times I’d go out of the pharmacy and pull somebody aside and talk to them. Nowadays, we’re now doing numerous other things. We’re giving immunizations, which takes tons of time. We’re doing MTM, or Medication Therapy Management, where we assist the doctors with patient care and help them decide what medication would be best for them based on cost. We’re also doing late-to-fill calls, where people who don’t fill their prescriptions, we’re now having to call them. We do the therapy calls with a patient when they receive a new medication. These are all added things which, back in the day, we never did.

When it comes right down to it, I haven’t had a lunch in 28 years. And that pretty much sums it up. But back in the day, 28 years ago, working in a pharmacy where numbers were lower, it made for a great day. Now, basically, you get out and you’re exhausted. Last night, it was 9 p.m., and I’ve got 96 scrips to fill in an hour; it doesn’t happen. A lot of it is business; a lot of it is companies not wanting to pay the extra for extra people to be working. But the increasing workload has really put a limit on basically why I went to pharmacy school, and that is the consultations.

What is your work schedule like these days?

I only work two days a week now. I love that. That’s a real bonus. This is one reason why I do encourage young women, girls, anybody thinking about possibly wanting to make family life a priority, that you can be a pharmacist, work a couple days and have a great life.

I’m always a Monday girl; Monday is the busiest day of the pharmacy week. I have my routine: I go in at 8 a.m., open up the pharmacy, get everything ready. I’m there by myself when I first open up. I have a tech who comes in about 8:15, and then we start our day. Basically what happens is on Mondays there are numerous notes, numerous doctors’ questions that I have to call on, because on weekends everybody’s closed. After spending a lot of time on the phone, Monday is just a standard, push-your-scrips-out day. We’ll usually do around 400. I have a two-hour overlap with the pharmacist who comes in at 2 p.m., which is the only time we have two pharmacists working simultaneously ever in a day. Then I leave at 4 p.m.

I also work Wednesday nights, so I’m in at 2 p.m. and I leave at 10 p.m.; sometimes I stay to 11 p.m., just depends on how much clean-up there is to do. Just standard routines. To be perfectly honest with you, pharmacy itself is not a creative job; you pretty much have a standard routine.

How much help do you have in the pharmacy?

Technician-wise, usually we have three techs, so one comes in at 8:15 a.m., one comes in at 9:30 a.m., and then the other one in the afternoon. You’re by yourself with one tech from 7 to 10 p.m., and that makes it kind of tough. Even last night, with 96 scrips to fill, and the tech not being able to get away from the counter, I’m doing all of that. But the staff is what makes or breaks your day. You’re only as good as the people you work with, and if your staff is not trained or your customers do not like your staff, that makes for a bad day. I love my pharmacy techs, and I wouldn’t make it through the day without them.

Have you ever tired of your own routine?

Yes, because I have a creative side. I see my older daughter is embracing her creative side -- she’s in film school at Michigan State, so she’s doing filming and directing and editing and that sort of thing –- and I see excitement in her. I would like to have that same excitement, but I don’t have it.

I’m very, very fortunate that I have my career, because it has afforded me to be able to do everything I possibly can for my kids and have a great life. But, yeah, I think if you were to talk to most of my colleagues right now, we’d all say we’re kind of frustrated with the way the profession’s changed over the years: just increased stress, added responsibilities and less time for patient care. It all comes down to the mighty dollar. We are wanted to be pill-pushers. But that’s in every retail. It’s just the way it is.

I have friends who work in a hospital pharmacy, and I wouldn’t say they like it better, but the stress level’s different for sure. But I think, back in the day, I wouldn’t have changed because I love what I do.

Companies themselves don’t want to put the extra money into added health. When you have a patient at the counter who looks at you, and is picking up a bag of Xanax, and says, “Annie, do you need one of these?” They see how stressed you are.

With these challenges in mind, what separates a very good pharmacist from an average everyday pharmacist these days?

I think it’s a matter of patient care. People want to like their pharmacists. I get calls on my phone, I get messages on my Facebook, I get my girlfriends calling me from the doctor’s office, asking, “The doctor’s giving me this, is this OK?” It’s basically a trust issue. I think a lot of pharmacists really don’t want to put the extra time into building those relationships. But for me, being in a small town, it’s enabled me to do that. Whether I’m busy or not, I basically know everybody.

Sometimes, that’s an added benefit for me. Say somebody I know comes in, and I’m swamped, and I say, “Look, it’s going to be a couple hours.” They'll say, “OK, not a problem.” Or when you have an elderly person that comes in, and you’ve been their pharmacist now for 20 years, and now that patient has Alzheimer’s or cancer, and their daughter or son is now coming in to talk to you about picking up medication for them. I've already built that relationship with that other person, so it’s very easy to build relationships with the family members if you’ve already laid that groundwork.

There are pharmacists out there that couldn’t give a crap. Basically it’s just, "I go to work, I get my paycheck, and I want to leave. I don’t care about anybody." Or they just don’t want to go the extra mile. I still try to do that for people.

How do you network with your peers?

I don't do formal association gatherings, but have quite a few friends that are pharmacists around Michigan. Because we are a little town, we basically know everybody here. Every once in a while, we try to get together, say on a Thursday night or something, and just go out and have a couple cocktails and chat about work. We’re just a close-knit group here. It kind of makes it nice, because if you have a patient that brings in a bad script, you can just call the other pharmacists and say, “So-and-so’s coming your way.”

What should pharmacy customers know about your profession?

That we appreciate their patience -- when they have it. Just to fill a script, I’ve gotten, “All you have to do is slap a label on it.” I went to school for five years to slap that label on the bottle, so it’s going to take a little bit of time. So people need to understand the process.

With technology and the changes that have come about, with what is called now e-scribing for anybody that needs a refill on their prescription but is out of refills. Now the patients are directed, not to call the doctor’s office for their medication, but to call the pharmacy. An e-scribe can take up to an hour to get to our pharmacy. It happens where a patient comes directly from the doctor’s office and says, “He just sent it! I was there when he sent it!” But the scrip goes through a third-party process. The scrip eventually will get to us, it just takes time.

Also, have your insurance card handy.

And what is your advice to aspiring pharmacists?

First of all, do well in school. Focus on education. If you love science, if you love anatomy, if you love physiology, if you love chemistry, if you love patient care, this might be a great career for you, or a great career path. What I find is, a lot of people who are geared toward pharmacy either back out or end up going into a medical career that’s not as stressful.

If you want a great career that can afford you a great lifestyle, that’s another great thing. And if you want to have a family, being a pharmacist has afforded me the time to be a mom first, and put my career second. And that’s what I’ve always wanted.

Ting is a ValuePenguin Co-Founder. She previously evaluated corporate mergers and acquisitions as a Financial Analyst at Citigroup.