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Pipeline2, Issue #126

LOOKING BACK...

I worked at a major chain pharmacy for three years. I was a pharmacy technician, a position that requires no previous pharmacological or medicinal knowledge. The major duties involved running the register, putting away stock on order day, and making the pharmacist more comfortable in doing her duties by dealing with the organizational aspects. In other words, I kept track of who was waiting for their pills, who was coming back, and who was going to be the big pain in the ass when they found out that by state law we had to give them the generic version of the prescription.

I also got to field such lovely inquiries as the woman who held her hand out palm up, wiggled her fingers, and asked what we had for her itch. Those kinds of questions immediately went to the pharmacists, all of whom I worked with were women.

There was one procedure that ALWAYS boggled my mind: Ordering prescription drugs. We weren't responsible for the over the counter stuff. The Tylenol, the cough drops, the alcohol swabs, and the vitamins were the front store's problem. We only dealt with the Vicodin, the Claritin, the birth control pills, etc. The home office dictated all of those orders. The geniuses up in Corporate HQ took the prescription statistics from our computers and figure out how "best" to stock things. Next to each bottle on the shelf was a sticker with a number on it. "1" meant we kept one bottle. "6" meant a half-dozen. (In some cases. "6" meant ordering "1" in the machine because they were only sold by the six-pack. I can only imagine how liquor stores figure this all out.)

Those numbers denoted the least amount possible of stock we could carry and still get through the week without missing any prescriptions. It didn't matter at all that you were ALWAYS going to sell penicillin. If you didn't sell the 200th bottle of the stuff this week, you'd sell it next week. It never lasted long enough on the shelf for dust to collect on the lids. There were enough pediatricians in the area that you could always count on penicillin prescriptions coming and going.

But, no. The pharmacist wasn't allowed to order any more than the 12 bottles the home office thought we'd need. If something caught on at school - as inevitably happened - and two dozen kids came down sick in the same week, only the first dozen would get their prescriptions filled.

What happened to the rest?

When a parent has a screaming, aching, crying 10 year old, they're not taking any of your crap. They get stubborn and obstinate and rightly so. They've got a sick kid and it's their job as a parent to sacrifice to make their child feel better. It's our job as a pharmacy to fill their prescription (within what the law allows) to deliver them the pills or the liquids that the local doctor thinks is best.

It's also good business. Being able to filling the customer's wishes at any time is what brings them back.

When our pharmacy ran out of the prescription, though, it meant forwarding the prescription to a different pharmacy. At the chain I worked in, there were two other locations of that chain in the area that could handle it. Both were a five to ten minute drive away. The prescription could be easily sent over the network to them.

There were also no less than two other pharmacies inside of two blocks that could fill their prescriptions. More often than not, the parent would have their prescription filled at the closest possible pharmacy. (At least, it would be the closest possible pharmacy that accepted their health care plans. But that's a rant for another day. And Cigna is a pain in the arse.)

My pharmacy chain lost their business for the prescription (and quite possibly all its refills) that had to be filled elsewhere and opened itself up to the possibility of losing a customer if that patient finds the other store better-stocked. (Often, it was. One of the others was one of the last remaining independent pharmacies of the area. They didn't have a home office dictating numbers to them. They kept a healthy supply of the top sellers in stock, knowing they'd sell them quickly enough. Sometimes, they'd have a bottle on a shelf for longer than seven days, but they never wanted to business.)

There's one other situation that came up a lot. We'd have enough pills left to keep the patient popping until our next weekly order came in. We could fill the prescription then and owe them the rest. When the new stock came in, we could just take the pills out of that order, put them aside, and give them to the customer when they came in next.

Of course, this depletes the stock you have available for your weekly quota and requires a return trip from the customer.

Having said all that, a quick question for the comic retailers reading this: Why do you purposefully under order DC books to the tune of 4% per month? Lack of knowledge of your customer base? Lack of up front funds?

Aren't you the least bit afraid that your customer will find the comic in another store, or that the week or two your customer will have to wait while you reorder the book might antagonize them towards you? Or that maybe they'll just not care in two weeks and have moved onto something else? Or is it just that there are so few stores left across this country now that you're not at all worried by that? Maybe the answer is just to have more stores so that readers have a choice.

I know, this is getting into blue sky territory. This is too far ahead of the curve. The economic realities aren't being considered in much of the questioning. But there are a few thoughts to be gleaned from the world of pharmacy, and I'm just asking (in essence) a couple of them. I invite you all to come up with your own questions based on this simple analogy. Post them on the message board or e-mail me with them. Maybe we'll revisit this...

At the very least, you'll know why your prescription refills are so often not completely filled. Your pharmacist shares your frustration. Trust me.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 300 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.

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