Pharmacist, Technician Safety and Mental Health Amid COVID-19

Expert Interview

Mike Johnston, founder and chief executive officer of the National Pharmacy Technician Association (NPTA), joined Drug Topics® to discuss their recent survey that pinpointed where pharmacists are feeling most unprotected during the pandemic.

Mike Johnston, founder and chief executive officer of the National Pharmacy Technician Association (NPTA) joined Drug Topics® to discuss their latest survey, which pinpointed where pharmacists are feeling most unprotected and unsafe at their workplaces during the pandemic.

Drug Topics®: Hi my name is Gabrielle Ientile with Drug Topics® and today we're speaking with Mike Johnston certified pharmacy technician and founder and CEO of the National Pharmacy Technician Association (NPTA). We're talking about the effects COVID-19 have had on pharmacists, particularly on the safety and defenses against the virus. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Johnston: Thanks for having me.

Drug Topics®: So I'd like to start out with a little bit of your professional background and how you came to found NPTA and also what your current day to day has looked like.

Johnston: So back in 1999, I was working as a certified pharmacy technician, and there really weren't a lot of resources or support out there for pharmacy technicians. And so I started the association with 3 members here in Houston. And over the years, we now have over 70,000 worldwide; from a day to day perspective, just working on advocacy efforts for technicians, some training and education and really just anything that we can do to support the profession.

Drug Topics®: Your recent news release introduced the NPTA survey, which asked pharmacists about how safe they feel at the workplace and the actions and supplies their pharmacy is supporting. And in fact, the majority of pharmacy technicians feel unsafe unprotected, uninformed and ill-equipped. Can you tell us a little bit more about the findings of your survey?

Johnston: The majority of the data from the survey came about two weeks ago, so there certainly have been some improvements made within the industry since then. We believe in part from the data getting released and kind of a spotlight being put on the matter.
But we were hearing a lot of reports and complaints and concerns from our members, and so we knew there was an issue going on on the ground so far as their safety and well being and so we decided to do a really quick survey and we got a tremendous amount of response. And the data was much more alarming than we were even anticipating. So overall, the vast majority of pharmacy technicians and pharmacists did not feel like the proper procedures and safeguards were being put in place. Now there was a significant difference at independent pharmacies and at hospital and health-system pharmacies. The workers, they're rated much higher than we found at the chain retail pharmacies.

Drug Topics®: I noticed that looking at the data, it seemed that chain mass and grocery retail pharmacies report the most concerning numbers: for example, 26, or actually 76 excuse me, 76% of respondents said that their chain pharmacy didn't supply the staff with face masks. And 90% of respondents said their chain also wasn't limiting the number of employees interacting at the counter. Why are we seeing these troubling numbers from chain mass and grocery pharmacies, and what consequences can this have?

Johnston: Well, with the data that we collected, we really aligned it with the specific guidelines and recommendations from the CDC and from the Federation of International Pharmacy that put out an exhaustive document on guidelines to provide for the safety and welfare of pharmacy employees. Honestly, the responses were even worse than some of the anecdotal information that we got; not only were these chain pharmacies not providing PPE to their employees, but some of the largest chain pharmacies in the country were actually prohibiting allowing their employees to even bring their own PPE and use for themselves. They were citing that it did not look professional, and they didn't want to potentially scare their customers. The reality of that is it's simply not acceptable. We're dealing with a pandemic worldwide, and these employers have got a responsibility to take care of the pharmacists and technicians that they employ, who are working on the front line. They're essential workers, but there's certainly safeguards that can be put in place. I personally do not understand why any pharmacy that has drive-through capabilities is still opening their pharmacy for walk up business. When you have banks and other institutions that also have drive-throughs that have closed that capacities to drive thru only to protect their workers. There has been a lot of improvement in the last several weeks, but there's certainly a lot more that could be being done.

Drug Topics®: And in terms of overall results, which type of pharmacies have you seen that are taking the most serious precautions overall?

Johnston: By and large, the data shows that the independently owned pharmacies, the health-system pharmacies and hospital pharmacies have been taking it much more seriously than the chain mass grocery store retail pharmacies have. Again, I do want to point out there has been improvements over the last several weeks you know, most pharmacies have installed plexiglass, things of that nature. But the recommendations from FIP were that any type of patient interacting workspace should be clean and disinfected between each patient. Not only has that not been occurring, but most retail pharmacies are not even providing time or supplies or the capacity to do a full clean and disinfection of the pharmacy once a day. I'm not I'm not sure why this is any type of acceptable standard.

Drug Topics®: And what was for you the most troubling piece of data the survey found?

Johnston: I think overall it gets summed up when we ask, how safe do they feel working in the pharmacy, and I think something that we really need to pay attention to is the anxiety and the worry and the fear that pharmacists and technicians are experiencing. The reality is, pharmacy workers are smack dab in the middle of trauma, and when we do get over the hump and on the other side of this, I think it's going to be critical that we really look at the mental health of healthcare workers, including pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. Data suggests that there's going to be significant increases in depression and post-traumatic stress disorders. And so the data is showing that the pharmacy staff have not felt safe, they have not felt like their employers were doing everything in their capacity to protect them, is just going to really kind of exacerbate the mental health issues, in my opinion. So I think I think that's going to be a key piece to look at.

Drug Topics®: Dr. Johnston, thank you so much for taking the time to discuss a super important topic. I really appreciate your time, and stay well.

Johnston: You too, thank you.


Editor’s note: This interview transcription has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Check back to for part 2 of this interview and more expert interviews on COVID-19.

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