Don’t rely on pharmacies to catch drug interactions, part 1

Published 7:00 am Friday, March 10, 2017

By Trudy Liberman

When you fill a prescription at your local pharmacy, you assume the medicine you receive is safe and won’t interact badly with other drugs you’re taking.

That’s not an unreasonable assumption, considering that pharmacists enjoy a positive reputation among the public.

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A recent Gallup poll found that pharmacists are among the most trusted professionals ranking second only to nurses.

But pharmacists’ reputations as patient guardians may be unwarranted. The results of an investigation published by the Chicago Tribune before Christmas showed that patients may be in danger after all.

The paper sent reporters to more than 200 pharmacies in the Chicago area, ranging from small neighborhood drug stores to those operated by large national chains. 

Fifty-two percent of the pharmacies they visited failed to warn patients that a pair of drugs, if taken together, could result in serious potential harm, even death. 

The Tribune called its findings “striking evidence of an industry-wide failure that places millions of consumers at risk.”

No doubt the poor practices uncovered in Chicago are common in other places. Twenty years earlier, in 1996, U.S. News & World Report published a lengthy study that found as the Tribune did that pharmacists failed to warn their patients of dangerous interactions.

Back then, the magazine sent reporters to pharmacies in seven cities and found that “well over half failed to warn consumers when presented with prescriptions for drugs, that, when taken separately are safe but when taken together can be risky at best and at worst deadly.”

What was striking to me was that in 20 years not much has changed in the pharmacy business, and unaware patients are still at risk.

In 1996 a spokesperson for the American Pharmaceutical Association told U.S. News reporters about ongoing financial turmoil in the retail drug business. Chains had begun to crowd out independents, HMOs were cutting their reimbursements, and pharmacists were under greater stress.

A spokesman for the American Pharmaceutical Association said the profession was “looking at a re-engineering of the whole profession.”

Fast forward to now. Was there really a re-engineering given what the Tribune found in its investigation last year? 

Since findings from the two studies are similar, I’m skeptical. A vice president of CVS pharmacy told the Tribune, “There is a very high sense of urgency to pursue this issue and get to the root cause.”  My question: Why wasn’t there such urgency 20 years ago?

To be continued in next week’s Item.