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A Bitter Pill to Swallow

Rx for Disaster?

WebMD Feature

July 16, 2001 -- Sandra Allen was a young pharmacist, with five years' experience under her belt, when she made her first mistake: Instead of giving a customer the correct dose for his medication, she misread the prescription and gave him 10 times the proper amount. The man ended up in the emergency room and had to undergo detox treatment to clear the medication from his system.

"The following week he came into the pharmacy and told me what happened," the now-retired pharmacist from Wisconsin tells WebMD. "I apologized profusely and asked him if there was anything I could do. He told me the trip to the emergency room cost $60; I happened to have enough cash in my pocket, so I gave it to him."

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Sandra Allen and her customer were lucky in that no one was seriously harmed. And she learned a valuable lesson.

"After that, no matter how busy I was or how many people were waiting, I would take the time to really carefully check my work," she says, adding that it isn't always easy with all the tasks a pharmacist is expected to do, from counseling customers, to counting pills, to troubleshooting insurance problems, to manning counters and drive-through windows.

During her 27 years on the job, Allen says, she often had to stay late to complete her work, and hardly ever got a chance to take a bathroom break, let alone a lunch break.

Allen is not alone, and life for today's pharmacist is not expected to get any easier or less stressful. Despite record-high starting salaries for the industry, there is a growing shortage of qualified people to fill the available jobs.

"I would not call it a grossly severe set of circumstances just yet, but we are very much headed in that direction," says Kenneth Roberts, MBA, PhD.

"The estimates are that there were approximately 2,500 unfilled positions when the class of 1998 graduated," says Roberts, professor and dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Kentucky. "When the graduates of the class of 2000 had taken their position, there were approximately 7,500 unfilled."

"It is pretty universal, it is pretty national in scope, and is not here-today-gone-tomorrow," says Lucinda Maine, senior vice president for policy, planning, and communications at the American Pharmaceutical Association. "It will impact the profession for the foreseeable future."

The Effect on You

Aside from having to wait longer to get a prescription filled, fewer pharmacists means more overworked pharmacists, which can lead to errors. The National Institute of Medicine last year estimated that errors are made on about 4% of the nation's prescriptions -- a total of 120 million mistakes a year.

Other research suggests the rate of prescription errors increases after a pharmacist fills more than 24 prescriptions an hour. The National Pharmacist Association recommends pharmacists fill no more than 15 prescriptions an hour, but that rate is routinely exceeded, with some pharmacists filling as many as 29 an hour.

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