Getting Residency Pearls – In Line At The Wal-Mart Pharmacy

OK. I had a sad, humbling experience on a trip to Wal-Mart last night. My wife asked me to return something and my daughter was/is sick, so I had to get a prescription filled. Not a big deal, right?

Well, three things… One. I am not a Wal-Mart guy. No offense to Wal-Mart Inc, but in my area the “customer service” there is quite pathetic. It is the type of place where those hilarious guys at Despair.com get inspiration. I have to consciously prepare myself to keep my mouth shut… suck it up… and move on.

Two. I am not a go-to-the-store-and-return something guy either. It’s just not me. I don’t like doing it. If I can get out of it, I will. (But if I’m wronged, I’m going full tilt – Better Business Bureau, letters to the home office, etc… just don’t make me return anything.)

Three. It’s the week after Christmas and the place is packed.

Anyway, I went.

There were no less than 40 people in line at the “customer service” desk (so naturally, I didn’t return anything :). I briskly bobbed and weaved to get to the pharmacy pick-up line. I was number 16 in line. Ahead of me stood 15 uncomfortable-looking, elderly patients. Since 11 of the 15 folks did not have a smooth pick-up, I had plenty of time to stand there… to just watch and listen.

Here is some of what I saw and heard:

  • The patients in line were elderly and uncomfortable standing so long.
  • Most of the patients had even sicker-looking (in a chronic sense) family members sitting aisles away on empty shelves or in wheelchairs.
  • While in line, these patients were cordial and patient, but as time went on, frustration and fatigue began to show.
  • While they were waiting and becoming increasingly tired, several employees were walking out from the back talking about their break and why they need to take it now, “even though it’s busy”.
  • Several patients were discussing “coming back out of retirement” just to be able to afford things for daily living.
  • Several quoted the $4 prescriptions as the reason they were willing to withstand the “customer service” and the lines.
  • Despite their interest in the $4 bargain, most (8) of them were unable to actually get the $4 drug… mostly because the way it was written.
  • 11 out of 15 had issues with their scripts being filled at all – and not one of the 11 was given a solution that they could control… The staff blamed each issue on the doctor or the government – 8 on the doctor, 2 on the government (specifically Medicare Part D), and one on both.
  • The second person in line (appearing to be in her late 70s) ended up being shouted at by the pharmacist, “Didn’t you read Medicare Part D?! Your doctor has to put the indication on your prescription! It’s not my fault! Go ask your doctor. We called, but your doctor is not getting back to us.”
  • There was one employee who was visibly working her tail off to get the patients their meds before they even reached the counter. She walked out and asked each person in line their names and began trying to get their stuff 3, 4, and 5 people deep in line. No one thanked her. No one said, “Job well done”, at least in the 45 minutes I stood in line.

Here are some tips and pearls for interns and residents to take away from this experience:

  • Small things on your part can make a humongous difference for your patients.
  • Write the indication on your elderly patients’ scripts.
  • Advise your patients to bring their discharge instructions with them to the pharmacy when they leave the hospital for the first time.
  • If you are writing a narcotic, put your DEA number and spell out the number of pills to dispense.
  • Try to avoid writing “Use as directed”… that doesn’t fly with some co-pays, Medicare D, and some discount programs.
  • Choose the medications wisely… with cost being a huge piece to factor in.
  • Ask your patients if they’ve ever had problems filling scripts before and what the nature of the problem was… too many to dispense, not covered by insurance, etc.
  • Consider titrating doses before adding new classes, if possible.
  • Keep an updated list of the discount meds available. And familiarize yourself with other discount programs (Target, Wal-Mart, Giant, etc).
  • Get in the habit of writing the generic name anyway.
  • If you get paged from a pharmacy outside of your hospital, it is probably regarding a patient you just discharged… Answer it promptly. That person who was just hospitalized is probably standing in Wal-Mart, or sitting off to the side waiting for a family member to fill their scripts.
  • Write legibly.
  • If there’s a discrepancy when looking at their meds and the meds you thought they were taking at home, ask the patient. Reconcile your scripts with their current meds.
  • Be careful what you talk about in front of others. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with discussing where everyone wants to order from for lunch. But if you do that while a patient or their family is in earshot, you might really rub them the wrong way.
  • Social workers and case managers know about these patients’ frustrations and potential problems… learn from them. Ask them for feedback. And appreciate what they do. (The insurance industry is like Wal-Mart on steroids.)
  • When someone does something well, or goes a little further than they have to, tell them about it… thank them… let them know that it was appreciated.

Now, it is important to realize that when you actually do these things, you will not be praised. No one will thank you. No one will really notice. And that’s okay. It’s not about you. It’s about them, the patients.

And if you don’t think it’s about your patients, then quit health care right now… and go work at Wal-Mart. You’ll fit right in… probably best-suited for “customer service”.

And here are some tips for Wal-Mart and pharmacies, in general:

  • Put some seats or benches for your elderly patrons. Be generous and be strategic. Put them in such a way that people can remain in line and remain seated if need be.
  • Consider having a health professional (MD, DO, NP, PA, Pharm D, etc) that can write scripts for the edits and tweaks that someone else simply forgot… things like indication, quantity, etc.
  • Consider having a looping video that explains procedures, policies, what’s needed, etc. so that people don’t have to wait in line to find out that they’re missing something.
  • Keep track of all of the issues that prevent people from getting their scripts on the first trip up to the counter… use that list to get to the root causes… or at least publish it. If it is truly the doctors, then send the list to me, I’ll get it out there.
  • Try to hire people that “own” problems, not the Me-Myself-and-I types that consistently shunt blame.
  • Remind your workers that it might be viewed as a little inconsiderate to discuss their breaks while frustrated customers look on. Remind them to consider how they would feel.
  • Tell your pharmacists that it is a very, very rare patient that ever “reads Medicare Part D”… In fact, I’ve never met one.

There’s my rant, but there are lessons in there, though. I learned a lot standing in line at Wal-Mart.