Sunday, October 7, 2012

Nostalgia and the Local Pharmacy

Recently a patient in our practice requested his Plavix renewal from a 90-day mail order pharmacy. When the "estimated" price came to $585 he decided to stop taking his cardiac medication. In exploring his insurance website I found that the actual cost would only be $200. In addition the company had a "Do Not Substitute" order on the prescription (something his cardiologist denies writing) and the cost of the generic is $28.59. Wow--the drug he almost quit taking because of the website price estimation was, in reality, 96% cheaper than originally thought. 

Contrast this with a phone call I received recently from Wish's Drugs, a local pharmacy here in Louisville. The pharmacist paged me on a Saturday morning regarding a patient's medication. I called the pharmacy and the pharmacist answered the phone(!). He suggested that my patient get a similar drug for half the cost of what I prescribed and asked if that would be OK. When I hung up the phone it struck me how pleasant that had been. Not just that the pharmacist was looking out for the interest of our mutual patient, but the call from start to finish--a real person answered the phone and it was the person I needed to speak to. Not only did I not push three different buttons and listen to three different voice messages along with a sales pitch for flu shots, but I immediately spoke to a person knowledgable and caring about my patient and her medical condition. Contrast THAT with the 90 day site where the patient, unknowing, was supposed to go back to his insurance web site, check the price of his medication and THEN go back to the pharmacy web site and decide that he could actually afford the medication because the real price to him would (only) be $200. No friendly pharmacist in that other state willing to make a phone call and get his patient a better deal on his medicine. 

It's not that I think mail order pharmacies are inherently evil, it's just that the service component is reduced to the patient. However, interestingly enough, the two studies I read regarding mail-order vs. local pharmacies [1,2] found patients are more compliant when they use mail order. Perhaps this is because when medicines are delivered right to the patient's door it reduces extra steps, making it easier for patients to remember and obtain their drugs?

In my experience patients enjoy the convenience and economy of getting 90 days worth of medication delivered to their mailbox but when there is a problem they are quickly frustrated by the difficulty of explaining to someone in another state what their needs are. As a physician, I am annoyed with the same difficulties, plus the frequent faxes asking about changing patients to a "cost-savings" alternative, something the patient is usually unaware of so we have to call him/her, ask their permission, explain what the change entails, etc. Just one more thing in my over-extended day that I don't have time for. 

Mail order pharmacies are not going away and local pharmacies where the pharmacist knows the patient and cares for him/her in a more intimate way are disappearing into distant, nostalgic memories. Given the studies quoted here, maybe that's a good thing. Does my desire for it to be different, for every patient to have the individual attention of the good pharmacist at Wish's make me out-dated?  

1. Schmittdiel JAThe comparative effectiveness of mail order pharmacy use vs. local pharmacy use on LDL-C control in new statin users. 2011 Dec;26(12):1396-402. Epub 2011 Jul 20
2. Duru OKMail-order pharmacy use and adherence to diabetes-related medications.  2010 Jan;16(1):33-40


  1. According to the United States Department of Labor, the median hourly wage of a pharmacy technician as of the year 2008 is around $13.32 per hour. The lowest ten percent of the population earned less than $9.27, the middle 50 percent get around $10.95 to $15.88 and the smaller percentage that belong to only the top 10 percent gets paid more than $18.98. Pharmacy Technician Wage

  2. I did not know that. Interesting in as much as a medical assistant makes about two dollars/hour more.

  3. Workers who are employed in the non-metropolitan region of West Central Kentucky have a median annual income of $23,780 while those in the East Kentucky non-metropolitan area make $25,580 on average. Comparable salaries throughout the U.S. can be found in Indiana pharmacy tech salaries and salaries of techs in Kansas.

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  5. No, doesn't make you out-dated but human. We're coming to believe that an automated, high technological world is better. The old cliché but still very relevant. My patients are not numbers nor checks, they are people and they are treated as such.

    1. Your attitude is refreshingly old-fashioned in a world where medications are prescribed to insurance company's numbers.