Pharmacists hit breaking point with ‘Pharmageddon’

Fresh Perspectives: Mass walkout reflects today’s “grim picture of workplace conditions” in the pharmacy, as Rx staff are burned out, the American Pharmacists Association said.
Pharmacy with line of patients-COVID_Shutterstock
Demands on pharmacy staff—and the expectations of their employers—exploded during the pandemic and contributed to current Rx workplace conditions. / Photo: Shutterstock
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After weeks of speculation, a mass walkout by burned-out pharmacists—dubbed “Pharmageddon”—has hit the big retail pharmacy chains. And one of pharmacy professionals’ biggest advocates, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), stands with their cause.

Pharmacist walkouts at some CVS drug stores in late September and then some Walgreens stores earlier this month have ballooned into a work stoppage by about 4,500 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians at various drug chains and pharmacy operators, including CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid locations, according to published reports.

The pharmacists’ and Rx techs’ complaints in this three-day “movement,” kicked off on Monday, are no different than in the prior actions. That includes overwhelmed staff, lots of extra hours, store closings, deluges of calls, few resources and, basically, just too many demands on community pharmacies, which (especially with the Affordable Care Act) have transformed into de facto health care destinations well beyond prescriptions.

“APhA stands with every pharmacist who participated in the walkout today. The bottom line is that we support every pharmacist’s right to work in an environment with staffing that supports your ability to provide patient care. We know that these are steps you deem necessary in order to be heard by your employer,” APhA CEO Michael Hogue said in a statement on Monday.

Tough times in the pharmacy arena

It seems the big retail drug chains have reached an inflection point. And the news hasn't been good.

Rite Aid is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and fighting for its survival. Walgreens and CVS have been slashing costs to make their expanded health care businesses more profitable and downsizing their retail presence and workforces, including sizable store closures. All three chains, among others, have faced repercussions from the opioid painkiller epidemic. And the COVID-19 pandemic heaped even more work onto pharmacy professionals’ shoulders with vaccinations, testing and scripts.

The breaking point has apparently been reached in pharmacists’ and techs’ eyes.

“For years, you have dealt with workplace issues, leading to frustrations and burnout, affecting your mental health and well-being. I have traveled regularly since my tenure as APhA’s CEO began last summer, and I have seen the burnout and frustration firsthand,” Hogue explained in his remarks. “While today Walgreens and CVS pharmacies are the focus of attention, I’ve also seen and heard clearly that corporate chain pharmacies are not the only place where pharmacists are being asked to work without adequate staff. I’ve heard from pharmacists in hospital outpatient pharmacies, federal facilities and mail facilities about the same burnout from inadequate staffing. Inadequate staffing is unacceptable in any setting.”

Concern about impact on care

Amid this perfect storm of pressures and demands, pharmacists and techs worry that difficult conditions are jeopardizing patient care. And APhA has a window into what’s going on via its Pharmacy Workplace and Well-being Reporting (PWWR) tool with chain community pharmacy employers. In the tool’s third-quarter report, submissions showed that workplace conditions remain the chief reason for negative experiences. Also, the tool indicated that insufficient staffing—which stokes the workload and puts patient safety at risk—and metrics are the top causes of pharmacist burnout, APhA reported.

Hogue said “real-life pharmacy experiences paint a grim picture of workplace conditions” as indicated by the PWWR tool’s latest findings. And as we’ve all likely seen, patients haven’t shown much patience toward pharmacy staff since the pandemic. APhA cited a recent CDC survey finding that incidents of patient harassment toward health care workers more than doubled from 2018 to 2022.

“For far too long, employers have made the situation worse than it needed to be. Supervisors who are not pharmacists do not understand the needs of care teams and make unreasonable demands on time-based productivity. Quotas on the number of prescriptions filled per hour or vaccines administered per day, or even time to answer the phone, simply fail to recognize that the pharmacist–patient relationship is not transactional. It is a special covenant—and supervisors who distill everything down to numbers and time metrics are destroying that relationship in the name of profitability,” Hogue stated.

“This must stop immediately. Employers should ensure supervisors clearly understand the covenantal pharmacist-patient relationship and that systems support this relationship fully,” he noted. “I again call on all employers to act swiftly on these issues that your pharmacy staff has made clear that they will no longer tolerate. The profession and industry need long-term solutions, and we need immediate action.”

And how. Americans depend on their community pharmacists.



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