Highlighting the important role independent community pharmacists play in our national healthcare system.
Pharmacist: John Ortego, PharmD
Pharmacy name: Parkside Compounding Pharmacy and Wellness Center
City, State: Sacramento, California
Pharmacist's years of service: 8 years
What led you to a career in independent community pharmacy?
While a pre-pharmacy student, I was researching scholarship opportunities and came across NCPA. I purchased a student membership and began reading America's Pharmacist, which was my first real-world peak into the profession of pharmacy. Upon starting the PharmD program at the University of the Pacific (UOP), I was ready and fired up to get involved in their NCPA student chapter, promote independents, fight the PBM's, and more. However, UOP hadn't had an active chapter for over 20 years so I helped re-start one as the chartering president. In short, I was programmed to be an independent pharmacist before I even knew how many pharmacy career options there were. It was sort of my goal to own, even before I started the work to become a pharmacist.
What makes your pharmacy standout from the competition?
One advantage of starting a pharmacy form the ground-up is that you can design your store just the way you want – so everything looks and feels clean and contemporary. I hear it so often from guests of the store that our pharmacy looks like no other pharmacy in the area.
Compounding (human and veterinary) was intended to be the cornerstone of our new pharmacy while in planning stages. I recognized it was an under-served area of pharmacy in our city and potentially, a very profitable niche. For three years post-graduation, I worked as an independent contractor pharmacist and picked up as much compounding experience as possible. At one point, I was attempting to start a junior partnership with a compounding pharmacist nearby, but that ultimately did not come to fruition. In retrospect, things worked out better having taken the risk and starting on my own pharmacy from scratch. In a city populated with over a million people and minimal local competition for compounding, we have seized the highly profitable niche. We turn compounds around quickly with competitive pricing, and I believe that word-of-mouth has spread, helping us gain even more of the market share.
In addition, my pharmacy is located in a fairly affluent suburb of Sacramento, so other unique products and services cater to our community. My wife, Michelle, runs a very cute and chic gift boutique for which she does all the buying, and she certainly has a great eye for it. In addition, she runs a skin spa within the same space as the pharmacy. The skin spa was included in our business model because Michelle had built a small practice for herself as a self-employed aesthetician, and over the course of a few years, had established a good clientele. And since we were to be a compounding pharmacy with the ability to create custom cosmeceuticals and serve BHRT (Biologically Identical Hormone Replacement) patients, there was some synergy between the two.
How did you ensure your staff was ready to offer the services you wished to provide?
I have the best staff you can possibly imagine. We all learned the new pharmacy management and compounding software, point of sale, and IVR together. Initially, we opened very "quietly" to give ourselves time to learn everything before announcing our official Grand Opening event. That way, when the rush of people showed up we'd be prepared.
What are your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges have always been limits on time and resources. At first, when you're so excited and motivated to own a pharmacy, working 80 hours a week doesn't seem like much. However, managing, nurturing, and growing the business while being the pharmacist in charge and keeping employee hours at an efficient and profitable level places huge demands on your time. So you carry on like a maniac for a while, but then two years go by and your kids are growing up and you realize you're missing a lot of it. I always say if I could find a way to squeeze in an eighth day of the week, I'd be able to find the right balance between work, leisure and family time. Realistically that cannot be done, so I continually try to incorporate systems that make our pharmacy's operations run as smoothly as possible without relying on my personally being present. This way, I am able to afford to be away more and the level of service to my patients and prescribers doesn't suffer.
Describe a recent, rewarding experience with a patient:
Any pharmacist with a significant volume of veterinary compounding will almost certainly agree that some of your most challenging personalities at the pharmacy counter belong to pet owners. It is a fair tradeoff though, because having pets as patients eliminates other challenges (i.e. insurance hassles, side-effects & compliance). Nonetheless, I recently had a new client who was calling for a price quote on a prescription for her dog. When she told me the dose and quantity of the drug, I calculated the cost and produced a price for her, but remarked that it must be an awfully large dog as the dose was tenfold what I typically see when compounding this for animals. I encouraged her to check the prescription with her vet before having it filled. She said the price did seem considerably higher than what she remembered paying previously and it was a new vet she was using, so she said she'd double check. Later, I received a call from the vet who acknowledged he'd written the prescription incorrectly and appreciated my vigilance. The pet owner was very grateful and went on to write a glowing online review about me and the pharmacy. It was one of those outcomes that felt very validating, because I was only prepared to spot such an error due to my extensive experience in that specialty. The dog could have been seriously injured, and the owner recognized this and was very, very appreciative.
How has NCPA helped your business?
I joined NCPA as a pre-pharmacy student, and I've maintained my membership consistently for 11 years. I've invested quite a bit into NCPA and have received even more in return. I led a team in the second ever Pruett Shutte Business Plan Competition and we took 1st place. There was a cash prize for the chapter and school and we earned a trip to Puerto Rico, but the real return was so much more than that. Winning the competition helped garner respect and a reputation as a businessperson in my field. When we first opened our store, we were a front-page feature in America's Pharmacist. I have the story wall-mounted in the pharmacy and posted on our website. People still read the story and tell me they're proud or that they found it interesting. Looking back, I was very driven and focused, and NCPA was both a catalyst and tremendous resource for me through those times. I'm a preceptor to intern pharmacists from both Pacific and California Northstate, and I particularly enjoy having students who are involved in their NCPA chapter. For me, there isn't any other pharmacy practice as exciting and rewarding as independent pharmacy; and I love it when I see that recognizable fire in an another up-and-coming student.
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