EDITORIAL: Major work stoppage by pharmacists could raise health concerns

A Walgreens store is seen, June 25, 2018, in Peoria, Ariz. Some Walgreens pharmacy staff walked off the job this week over concerns that working conditions are putting employees and patients at risk. Organizers on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, estimated that more than 300 Walgreens locations — out of nearly 9,000 nationwide — were affected by walkouts planned for Monday, Oct. 9, through Wednesday, Oct. 11. A company spokesperson said “no more than a dozen” pharmacies experienced disruptions. (Ross D. Franklin/AP File Photo)
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Pharmacists have been walking off the job at our nation’s two largest drug store chains, Walgreens and CVS, in recent weeks. So far it’s unknown whether or how the protests might affect the Rio Grande Valley, but it deserves our attention, as a loss of pharmacy services could affect patients’ access to vital drugs and other healthcare services, and threaten the health of many residents.

So far this is not a nationwide strike. Most pharmacists do not belong to unions; the stoppages are organized in part by Bled Tanoe, a former Walgreens pharmacist in Oklahoma City who says pharmacists are overworked and undersupplied. It might be easy to see this as an effort by a disgruntled former employee, but the fact that she has found so many receptive ears and inspired so much action warrants attention.

Any overworked person can be more prone to make a mistake, and pharmacist errors — misreading a prescription, giving the wrong medication, dosage or instructions — happens more often than many people realize. According to the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, they are among the most common medical errors, killing or harming at least 1.5 million people and costing around $77 billion every year.

At this time we don’t know if the protesting pharmacists have a valid argument, but the matter needs to be addressed, as public health is at risk.

A CVS is seen in this undated photo. (Courtesy: CVS Health Newsroom)

It’s worth noting that when Walgreens and CVS first began moving into South Texas several years ago, many people worried that they would drive away local, independent pharmacists who provided more services than the chains did, such as providing injections and mixing special medications that large chains didn’t provide. Many Valley residents still cross into Matamoros, Nuevo Progreso and Reynosa to utilize pharmacy services they consider better than those available north of the border.

Today the big drug chains have their own competition, as department and grocery stores such as H-E-B and Walmart are expanding their pharmacy offerings. Those venues provide options for everybody concerned: patients can use them instead if their drug store reduces services; pharmacists might find better conditions at alternative stores; and interested parties can compare conditions at all stores to determine if the chains need to change or if the pharmacists’ demands are unreasonable.

Perhaps the drug store chains can find better ways to utilize their professionals; some customers have complained that a majority of the contact they have with pharmacists at these two chains is listing to them try to sell un-prescribed medications or refills that they patients no longer deem necessary. A store’s desire to increase revenue is understandable, but it’s likely a job that could be handled other than a trained health professional who probably is the store’s highest-paid employee. This easy fix would free pharmacists up to devote their time to more crucial healthcare needs.

Let’s hope the walkouts are short-lived, as flu season is one of pharmacies’ busiest seasons. May this issue lead to evaluations and possible changes that improve the safety and options for the public who need the best health care possible.