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Getting to know your pharmacist For better health care

Many people, when they visit their pharmacy, merely drop their paper prescription off at one window, and return to pick up the bag containing their medication at the other window. But, did you know that your pharmacist can answer your questions and help you learn more about the drugs you take to treat your illness? Yes, that white-coated figure back there between the shelves is there to help.

While pharmacy technicians fill your prescriptions, the pharmacist checks each one to be sure that it’s the right medicine, the right dose and quantity, and carries the right instructions. He/she also checks to make sure the medication you’re getting has no problem interactions with food or other drugs you’re taking. He/she also spends time talking to doctors and insurance companies.

It’s important to buy all your medications at the same pharmacy. They maintain a database of the medications you have taken in the past and presently.

Part of the pharmacist’s job is to be available to answer your questions and offer advice. They also work with your physician to choose the safest and most effective medication for you.

What are the pharmacy staff’s qualifications?

Most pharmacy schools today require a four-year professional program, as well as two years of undergraduate courses similar to those of a pre-med curriculum, says Laura Pizzi, PharmD, Research Associate Professor of Health Policy, Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia The first two years of their education, she says, emphasizes the scientific aspect. The second two years is about the clinical side of the practice, or the actual treatment of patients. “It’s not just about counting pills,” says Pizzi.

Pharmacy technicians, on the other hand, may have vocational training or none at all. “They could have community college training in pharmacy operations and the technical aspects of filling prescriptions,” says Pizzi, “such as counting and generating labels. But, some have had only on-the-job training.”

What can I expect of my pharmacist?

First, ask your questions of the pharmacist, rather than the pharmacy technicians. They’re not qualified to provide professional advice.

Pharmacists are required by federal law to counsel patients receiving medications. Many people don’t notice, but the log you sign when you’re given your medication says that you have either received or declined counseling for that prescription. The technicians should ask you if you have any questions for the pharmacist. One problem is that pharmacists have never gotten paid for their time counseling patients. But new legislation, says Pizzi, will allow them to bill insurance companies and Medicare.

Here are some examples of questions you can ask your pharmacist:

  • Is an herbal or over-the-counter treatment safe and effective?

  • Is there a generic version and is it as effective as the brand name drug?

  • Does it matter what or when I eat with this medicine?

  • What side effects could I have

What about mail-order pharmacist?

While meds-by-mail can save you money, it’s not at the sacrifice of personalized service. Medco, for example, one of the leading mail-order pharmacies, offers more comprehensive consultation than most retail stores, and it’s available 24/7.

People who have a pharmacy benefit managed by Medco have access to hundreds of pharmacists who are specially trained and certified in specific chronic conditions, says Medco spokesperson Jennifer Leone Luddy. And, their pharmacists have access to a member's entire prescription drug history, including those filled at retail pharmacies. Patients can get quick answers to their questions either by phone or email.

How can I get the most from my pharmacy service?

To avoid a long wait, ask your doctor to phone or fax the prescription. And, call ahead to see if your medicine is ready for pickup before you come in. If possible, get your prescription filled on weekdays, before the after-work rush.

You may get more personal service at a smaller, low-volume store. But, if the store is not in your insurance plan’s network, you may pay a little more. The large chain stores are often busy and the staff rushed.

“But, your pharmacist really does want to talk with you,” says Pizzi. “It makes their job more rewarding.”

The American Pharmacists Association has more information.

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