Pharmacy service: No fries with that

January 31, 2011

One pharmacist fantasizes about a world that draws the distinction between fast food and pharmacy.

“How long does it take to count some pills and put them in a bottle?”

You can’t imagine how many times I’ve heard that one, or how many times I’ve held myself back from responding with “This isn’t McDonald’s.”

“Twenty-five to 30 minutes? Really? How long does it take to put some pills in a bottle?” Pharmacists from coast to coast hear the same incredulous cry. The only things that change are the wait times, the customer’s accent, and the decibel level.

On my drive home after an especially busy day filled with more rude customers than usual, I brooded over the thought of McDonald’s. I fantasized a scenario in which I could use the McDonald’s analogy to explain why it “takes so long” to fill a prescription.

In my fantasy - in which customer service is not a major corporate concern - when I shoot back “Hey, this ain’t McDonald’s,” one of 3 things happens. The customer has a mini-epiphany and realizes that expecting to have the prescription filled at the snap of a finger is ridiculous. Or the customer becomes incensed and demands to speak with my manager. Or I’m expected to explain why the process takes so long.

“Well, it looks like McDonald’s,” says the customer accusingly. “You have an order window, a pickup window, and a drive-through … and most of your help look like high school students.”

Wow. With reasoning like that you can hardly blame the customer for misunderstanding. I look the customer in the eye and try to sketch out the difference between my pharmacy and a fast-food joint.

“If you go to McDonald’s and order a cheeseburger with no onions, doesn’t it take them longer to get your order ready?”

“A lot longer,” the customer in my fantasy answers obligingly.

“So think of a pharmacy as having nothing but special orders like cheeseburger-no-onions. We have to “cook up” each order as it arrives. Nothing is ready before you get here.”

I look to see whether the customer is following and continue. “And the big difference between pharmacy and fast food is that even though fast food will eventually kill you, getting something wrong in your cheeseburger order doesn’t cause that morbid an effect. However, getting something wrong in your prescription order will definitely speed up that morbidity process.”

I pause for a second to let that one sink in. “And while people working in fast food don’t usually get into the business because they want to help people, that is EXACTLY the reason I chose to be a pharmacist.”

Then the customer finally sees me. I mean what I am saying and the customer feels it - and responds by looking me dead in the eye.

In my fantasy, the customer’s posture immediately relaxes. “Thank you,” I hear - one of those rare “thank-yous” in which you can actually feel the warmth of appreciation.

Sadly, we do not live in fantasyland. Neither I nor the customer can spare the time to have that conversation.

And how would my district manager respond to a complaint from a customer who construes my response as condescending, sarcastic, or hostile? I’m not sure - and I don’t want to find out.

Sigh.

I retreat to my fantasy pharmacy, where I now have a sign posted at the drop-off window explaining the differences between fast food and pharmacy. It’s a beautiful 4-color comparison chart. My highly effective technicians point to this sign each time a customer drops so much as a hint of annoyance about the estimated wait time. My sign becomes highly effective too - and now all my customers are patient(s).

Too bad the only time I get to work in my fantasy pharmacy is on the way home from my real-life practice.

Nicole L. Ebisch, PharmD, CGP, works for a large chain as well as an MTM consulting company in Erie, Pa.