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Front-line Leaders: Gateway Pharmacy

Mark Szilagyi, co-owner and pharmacist at Gateway Pharmacy, a member of the Good Neighbor Pharmacy network, joins Drug Topics to discuss the role his pharmacy plays in his Phoenixville, Pennsylvania community.

Drug Topics®: Hello and thank you for tuning in to today's episode of Over the Counter, in partnership with AmerisourceBergen and Good Neighbor Pharmacy. I'm Miranda Hester and I'm an editor with Drug Topics. I'm joined today by Mark Szilagyi, owner and pharmacist at Gateway Pharmacy, a member of the Good Neighbor Pharmacy Network. Thank you for being here.

Mark Szilagyi: Thanks for having me.

Gateway Pharmacy was recently named a Pharmacy of the Year finalist as part of Good Neighbor Pharmacy’s annual ThoughtSpot Conference and Trade Show. The award recognizes pharmacies that have gone above and beyond for their communities and displayed excellence in patient care and innovative pharmacy practice. Mark, congratulations to you and your team members on this amazing recognition. I'm excited to hear about the vital role that your pharmacy plays in your community and how you've continued to build that local legacy. But to start, can you give us a bit of background on the history of yourself and your pharmacy?

Szilagyi: Absolutely. Gateway has been here in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania since the 1950s. And then in 1982, my dad Mark Sr. and his partner, Henry Katra. They both purchased the store and have been running it since then. So, of the 2 families, it's my sister and I and Henry's kids, Nicholas and Kristen Katra. We basically started when we were about 6 years old, a good funny story. I know 6 sounds young to start in pharmacy, but my mom would get tired of dealing with me. She would send me into work with my dad. And that's when I started at Gateway: pricing, different things up in the warehouse and just kind of puttering around as like a 6-, 8-, 9-, 10-, 12-year-old would do in a pharmacy.

I've had many, many roles here. From stock boy to pharmacy register to pharmacy technician and then to pharmacist and then finally to pharmacy manager and part owner. That's kind of my personal role here. As far as the store goes, we've been here since 1950. We purchased the store in 1982; it's been a staple of the community since then. We've been trying to offer as many services to the community as we possibly could.

Drug Topics®: Can you tell me more about the Phoenixville community? What is your patient population like and what are they looking for from their local pharmacy?

Szilagyi: Absolutely. The town is pretty interesting. In the 1800s, Phoenix Steel started; [Phoenixville] was a huge steel town, and as a lot of Pennsylvania towns that had steel or coal did in the 1980s, they closed the plant, and so the demographics really changed from a booming, popular town. I don't know if you've ever seen the movie The Blob—it's an old movie, a horror movie—and that was the biggest thing about Phoenixville after the plant closed—that it was filmed in Phoenixville. The demographics really changed in the 80s. It became a town where money wasn't flowing. The plant was closed. We had a lot of older people who stayed, and then a lot of people who left and went to the city, or went to more prosperous areas.

Then, in the mid 2000s, [community leaders] decided that they were going to try to revitalize the town. They started opening up Bridge Street to have some new restaurants and different pubs and beer gardens and things like that. And it's just taken off in the last 10 to 15 years. We have a really diverse population. We have those people from the old school, blue collar, steel mill; we have new millennials who have moved into town, who really love the bars and all that. Our population is really—I don't want to say too unique—but really wonderful because we have everybody from older people who've been here for 56 years to people who just moved here maybe 2, 3, 4 or 5 years ago. It's a great community. People come together, and it's a small community too—so a lot of people know everybody, and there are a lot of names that…you'll see and [say] ”Oh, that's a Phoenixville name.” It's a really great diverse and vibrant community.

Drug Topics®: Let’s talk about your approach to patient care and relationships at Gateway Pharmacy. What kind of experience do you strive to provide your patients, and how do you and your staff members make that a reality?

Szilagyi: I always thought about a couple of things, actually. The one thing I always thought about was [that] going to the pharmacy or going to the doctor is not really always the most exciting or pleasurable experience. I mean, when you're sick or you don't feel well, [or] you have something wrong with you, your mentality changes. [It’s different] than if you were going to get a breakfast or going to go shopping for clothes or something that you would enjoy. I try to impart that sort of mentality of the patient, that not everybody may want to be here, coming to us. Our goal is to try to make it as easy and as pleasurable as possible.

Being that we are small community, it's nice to greet people and try to know who they are, and to remember them. I can say that some of our staff are just so amazing. I could point out Tricia, our general manager. She knows so many people by name, goes right to the basket when she sees them, doesn't have to ask the name. We don't always necessarily require that of everyone, but that type of mentality, that we're here for you, we know who you are, and we're ready to help you out in any way we can, I think is good—not only for us, but it's great for someone who doesn't want to be there. It sort of helps smooth everything over and you leave feeling good about trying to not necessarily fix, but sort of treat, what is wrong. We're making a bad thing a little bit better.

We don't prescribe medicine. So we can't say, “Well, you know, this is the drug you take,” but we can communicate it to the patient, and that's really our job as a pharmacist. I tell people they don't pay me to count pills. They pay me to talk to you. They pay me to communicate and work you through the process of getting a prescription. I think that our staff really tries to impart that as best they can, and to just tries to make the experience a little bit better.

Drug Topics®: Great, thank you. As those in the industry know, pharmacists’ role and value in the health care system has been increasing exponentially for many years, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mark, can you discuss how Gateway has grown and evolved its services and offerings over the years to meet the changing needs of your patients.

Szilagyi: After COVID-19, we had a number of things in place that we really saw starting to take off. The biggest one was obviously the immunizations. We always did immunize people; we did flu shots yearly, and we do shingles shots, pneumonia, and Tdap. But obviously, with the COVID-19 vaccine… that was a huge thing. We really had a great response with our customers and the community at large, being able to provide it through a couple other different organizations that we worked with. We also do medication adherence—the SMM program is what we call it—which really tries to help people not only get their medication every month or every 3 months, but also to tries to keep them on track to take [those medications].

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We are now starting a diabetes prevention program, which is headed up by Nick Katra, one of the partners. The goal is to try to capture people who are prediabetic, and to teach them a way to avoid getting diabetes through lifestyle changes.

We also have a compounding lab, which we do a lot of different stuff, some pet medication. We do some programs for patients who are unable to take certain dyes and fillers. And we have actually— it has really been a robust thing—is some long-term care homes, which has been a wonderful, wonderful experience for us. We found that in the community, there were a lot of smaller group homes that had maybe 5, 6, or 7 patients…and they had patients taking care of them. They were not getting the type of service from their previous groups that we were able to provide. It wasn't that we were doing anything really all that phenomenal or new. It was just that we work personally with them, to blister pack their medicine, do a monthly cycle for them, provide them with medication records, so that they're able to give the medicine to the patients. That's been a wonderful, wonderful windfall for us. We're really proud of that program.

One of my personal favorites is doing a lot of pet medication. It's been really a great experience, because we're finding that as an independent pharmacy, you're a lot of times priced out by the bigger guys, as far as prescriptions go. This was an opportunity, once AmerisourceBergen was able to get us a contract to do pet medications, that we could become relevant in that space, and that's been great. You're not dealing with insurance companies, so that's something that's been fantastic.

We had a mobile app before [the pandemic], which has been used a lot more. We instituted a text function, and everybody texts now. I mean it's just amazing how 90 year old people, they text—which is fabulous, because I think it definitely helps you communicate better.

And we do a lot of over-the-counter stuff. Our gifts section is just phenomenal. We have a great candy case that we just put in a couple months ago, and people have really responded to that. So, we do a lot of different things. And after COVID-19—or during COVID-19—we really didn't change anything other than that we made [the pharmacy] more accessible to people. If people wanted to do curbside, we did curbside. If people wanted delivery, we did delivery. The good thing about it was doing the vaccines and getting more exposure; I think people started to see all the things that we did, which was really great because we always did these things. It was just letting those people who didn't know about us already see all the great things that we did.

Drug Topics®: Mark, can you tell me about the mobile vaccine clinic that Gateway had during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Szilagyi: Yeah, we had a great partnership in town with the mayor, Valley Forge Fire Company, West End Fire Company, Phoenixville emergency management and Phoenixville hospital. We all got together in a very serendipitous way. It turned out that I could get the vaccine, [and] they couldn't, but I didn't really have the people to provide the right volume of shots. We got together and we did amazing things. I think we've vaccinated over 10,000 people at this point. It's been it's been a wonderful thing.

We would go to schools; we did Phoenixville Area Middle School, we did Phoenixville High School, we did Owen J. Roberts Middle School, and we did Owen J. Roberts High School. We also provided a number of different vaccine clinics together with them. It was just a wonderful experience. We got to really know the mayor, who is an amazing man. We got to know a lot of the community even better than we already do, so it was fun. I will say this: it was fun because it's amazing what you can get done when everybody is on the same page and has a common goal. I think we really did that. And we've created partnerships for the rest of our lives with that.

Drug Topics®: It’s so inspiring to hear how you and your team have continued to go above and beyond for your community during such a critical time. Independent pharmacies are known for their ability to provide trusted and high-quality patient care, but there is so much more that goes into running your business behind the scenes. How has being a part of the Good Neighbort Pharmacy network helped advance and optimize your pharmacy’s operations so you can focus more on delivering the best care possible?

Szilagyi: Being a part of AmerisourceBergen and Good Neighbor Pharmacy has been integral, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic…We knew that this [the vaccination process] was going to be something that we wanted to be a part of; we just weren't sure what we were going to be able to do, whether it was just a couple people here, just a local population. And as I said before, it turned into a wonderful thing where we did the high schools in the area and a lot of the community. When I worked with Mark, our business coach, he really gave me the ideas like, “You can do more, you can do more than a couple hundred people.” He laid it out, that it's “Look, if you guys really want to do this, you can do this.” And so, with AmerisourceBergen having the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine… I'll be honest, I was incredibly intimidated by having ultra-cold, frozen, 1200 shots of [the vaccine] sitting in a freezer in my pharmacy. I was nervous about that, [thinking], I don't want to screw this up. My sister and I sat down one day and we said, “Can we really do this?” We talked to Mark a little bit and then we talked to our group that we were working with and we said, “Let's do it, let's get this done.” And it took off from there. I said to Mark, “I can't thank you enough for inspiring us and for AmerisourceBergen being able to provide us the shot.”

What happened in our county was, the local health department sort of took over initially and they did these mass vaccination clinics and that was great. They did what they needed to do, but they cut a lot of the local smaller groups out, so we weren't able to get a lot of the vaccine to the state. When AmerisourceBergen stepped up and said, “We have this available,” it really gave us that opportunity. I said to Mark, “You know, it's really nice to be able to play in the game”—like that old put me in coach kind of thing—and see what we can do. I think when you see the numbers and what we were able to do, if you look at the vaccination rates in our county, we definitely had a hand in vaccinating a lot more people, because AmerisourceBergen put us in the game.

Drug Topics®: As we mentioned earlier, Gateway Pharmacy has been named a Pharmacy of I Year finalist by Good Neighbor Pharmacy. Mark, what does this recognition mean to you? And what are you most proud of?

Szilagyi: That this nomination is not just for the owners, or [for] me or my sister. It really is a testament to everyone that we work with—all the employees here—and a testament to the community because it's been difficult for independent pharmacy. In the last 10 years, it's been a difficult drive. There are a lot of competitors, a lot of big chains; they use tactics where you have to go to them for monetary reasons. It’s really a testament to our customers who stuck with us for years and years and years; [they] didn't have to come to us. This nomination really is… we wouldn't be here without them. It's a great honor. I think it's well deserved from all groups, our customers, the owners, and all our employees.

Drug Topics®: That’s wonderful, and best of luck to you! To close out our conversation, what are some of your biggest priorities for the year ahead? What excites you most about the future of independent pharmacy?

Szilagyi: I think we're excited to see what happens with the new vaccine. In the fall, we're going to plan on vaccinating as many people that want to get vaccinated. We're planning on doing flu shots, which I think is going to be another big thing. It's been really a good scene for us. What I am most excited about for independent pharmacy, I think, is being independent. I think that gives us a really good niche. Like we said, the competitors… they basically force you there. You're not happy to go there. You go there because you have to. Being independent allows us to stick and move and figure out different things: how can we help this smaller group, or [what happens] when you get enough small groups together? It starts to snowball and you start to pull people together and you start to have a little bit of a network. That’s what I'm interested in: Not necessarily getting the people who can't come to us, but getting the people who want to come to us. Getting those small groups and finding enough small groups together to make a big group to thrive and to grow and to do new and different things.


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