A pharmacist’s real job: The art and ethics of communications


Patients must be taught what their meds mean and why they're taking them. That's a job for the pharmacist.

Ken BakerYour patients may be at risk. You can save them. Here’s the story. A few years ago, Lindsey Tanner, a reporter for the Associated Press, wrote that “having trouble understanding medical information is bad for your health. Now new research says it could even be deadly.”1 According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and referenced by Tanner, low health literacy can be used as a predictor of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular death among the elderly living in the community.2

As Tanner put it, “a patient’s ability to read common medical information, including prescription labels” can independently predict when a patient will die.1

The researchers found that 25% of the elderly study participants were health-illiterate – unable to understand such things as prescription labels and doctor’s instructions. Imagine your patients dying before they need to because they cannot understand the instructions on and about their medicine.


Smart is not enough

I teach at Midwestern University College of Pharmacy in Glendale, Arizona. As I interact with pharmacy students, I am amazed by how smart they are and how much pharmacy science they know. They know more about medicine, drugs, pharmacology, and pharmacokinetics than any practicing doctor I have ever met. 

However, articles like the one in the Archives of Internal Medicine demonstrate that being a smart healthcare professional is not enough. Unless pharmacists and other healthcare professionals use their knowledge to help patients, their talents are wasted.

In this context, consider another profession – the practice of law. A lawyer’s job is to communicate. Lawyers are taught to use their knowledge to communicate to others the things they know. They communicate with clients, judges, other lawyers, and more. Lawyers practice the art of communications. That art will increasingly define the future of pharmacy.


It’s an art

Pharmacy is and always will be a science.  It is the science of drugs, medicine, pharmacology, pharmacokinetics, and many other subjects necessary to the education of pharmacy students.

Increasingly, however, pharmacy is also becoming an art – the art of communications. If nothing else convinces us of this fact, we should be convinced by that study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Pharmacists can use their knowledge to help people live longer and better. 

Everyone is ignorant about something. We are all ignorant in different areas and subjects. Illiteracy, as studied in the research above, is merely ignorance in a particular area.

What those researchers were talking about was the not the ability to read and write, but to understand what the doctor and the pharmacist are talking about.


Basic requirement

Simply put, all patients leaving the pharmacy or hospital should know why they are taking each medication they have been prescribed.

They should know when and how to take each drug, and when to stop.

 Patients should be able to recognize common, severe side effects and know what to do if a side effect should occur.

Some patients already know this, but some do not. The researchers conducting the study mentioned above found that 25% of the elderly patients they studied did not have this knowledge.


The job

The job of the pharmacist is to figure out which of his or her patients is lacking this information and understanding, and to educate them. This is the art of communication.

One principal set forth in the Pharmacists Code of Ethics states, “A pharmacist promotes the good of every patient in a caring, compassionate, and confidential manner.”

In simple terms, this means that a pharmacist needs to be a scientist in the area of medicine and drugs. It also means that a pharmacist needs to practice and excel at the art of communicating that knowledge for the benefit of his or her patients. 


1. Tanner L. Medical illiteracy linked to higher rates of death. Arizona Republic, Associated Press. July 29, 2007.

2. Baker DW, Wolf MS, Feinglass J, Thompson JA, Gazmararian JA, Huang J. Health literacy and mortality among elderly persons. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(14):1503-1509.

Ken Bakeris a pharmacist and an attorney. He teaches ethics at the Glendale, Arizona, campus of Midwestern University, and risk management for the University of Florida. He consults in the areas of pharmacy error reduction, communication, and risk management. Mr. Baker is an attorney of counsel with the Arizona law firm of Renaud Cook Drury Mesaros, PA. E-mail him atken@kenbakerconsulting.com.


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