Why You Should Choose an Independent Pharmacy

By Donnie Calhoun, RPh
As submitted to the AARP Bulletin

Millions of prescriptions are filled at independent community pharmacies each year, but many Americans barely know they still exist. Fond memories of soda fountains and Norman Rockwell pictures belie the fact that there are 23,000 family owned, independent pharmacies in the United States. That's right—23,000, more than all the traditional chain drug stores combined.

These small businesses dispense about 40 percent of all retail prescriptions. They employ more than 300,000 people, including some 63,000 pharmacists. As community pillars, they contribute greatly to their local economy and tax base. They also dispense a greater percentage of cost-saving generic drugs than some other pharmacy providers. Independent pharmacies are often in underserved areas, particularly rural and urban ones, and provide specialty health items hard to find elsewhere.

While a few pharmacies still have soda fountains, today you're also likely to find a modern health care resource center where you get personal service along with your medicines, immunizations, blood pressure and cholesterol tests, diabetes education, and weight loss counseling.

Personal, face-to-face service is what sets independent pharmacies apart. It is delivered by experts in the increasingly complex world of pharmaceuticals equipped with Doctorate of Pharmacy degrees earned by two years of undergraduate and four years of graduate education, followed by annual continuing education requirements.

"Customer service is becoming an increasingly important advantage of the brick and mortar pharmacy experience," the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 U.S. Pharmacy Study found. "The pharmacist is at the heart of that customer service."

The study, released in September 2012, was based on responses from 12,700 pharmacy customers who had recently filled a prescription. Customer satisfaction measured the prescription ordering and pick-up process; store; cost competitiveness; non-pharmacist staff; and pharmacist.

"Pharmacists, who are viewed as one of the most highly esteemed professional groups, are there to provide customer service, not just dispense prescriptions," the study said. "It's surprising that more customers don't utilize the opportunity, given that pharmacists provide free health advice, and you don't have to make an appointment." Pharmacists' esteem was reiterated in December's annual Gallup poll of professional ethics and honesty. Three out of four Americans gave pharmacists high or very high ratings, second only to nurses.

Consumer Reports' Best Buy Drugs August 2012 newsletter cited independent pharmacies among its five ways to reduce spending on medicine. "Negotiate with independent pharmacies," the newsletter advises. "Although many neighborhood independent pharmacies might not offer or widely advertise a discount generic drug program like their national competitors, store owners might be willing to match the prices of the big chain stores. It's worth asking, especially if you expect to be on a medication for a long time, or even if you just prefer to shop at a neighborhood pharmacy."

The article goes on to mention a 2011 Consumer Reports subscriber survey in which "independent pharmacies scored highest for providing faster service, making fewer errors, and being more likely to have medications ready for pickup when promised. Readers also liked mom-and-pop drugstores for their personal service and the accessibility of pharmacists." In all, 94 percent of readers polled said they were highly satisfied with their experiences at independent community pharmacies.

Many independent community pharmacists are offering new ways to ensure patients take their medication for optimum health benefit. Sometimes it takes the form of pharmacist-patient consultations known as medication therapy management.

There's also a growing move toward synchronized refills. That means one stop at the pharmacy for the patient to pick up and review their medications with the pharmacist, instead of multiple trips as different drugs run out at different times.

Some 1,600 independents participate in the Dispose My Meds program, an environmentally friendly option to dispose of unwanted prescription drugs. It recently hit a milestone with the collection of over 100,000 pounds of unused or expired non-narcotic medications turned in by patients and communities since the initiative's launch in 2010.

Maybe you haven't noticed them, but there's probably an independent community pharmacy within five miles of where you live. You can go to the homepage of the National Community Pharmacists Association, click on "Find Independent Pharmacies," and enter your ZIP code. You'll be glad you did.

Donnie Calhoun owns two independent pharmacies in Anniston, Ala., and is president of the National Community Pharmacists Association

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