The Differences Between Independent and Chain Pharmacies

I have been a pharmacist at Oswald’s Pharmacy since 2018. Most people don’t know that I actually used to work for a popular chain pharmacy before coming here. I was incredibly miserable there (as are most pharmacy staff members at chains), so I was very grateful to get a job at a local independent pharmacy.

Why was I miserable? Yikes… where do I even start? Chain pharmacies severely limit the duties a pharmacist performs. Corporate policies and job descriptions make it difficult to help patients on an individual level. Chain pharmacies are all about numbers, numbers, numbers. My switch to Oswald’s Pharmacy allowed me to become the pharmacist I have always wanted to be and allowed me to focus on our patients on a personal level.

The Way Chains Work (or, What you Don’t Know about Chain Pharmacies)

Simply put, the main goal of any major chain drug store or pharmacy is to fill the most prescriptions in the least amount of time with the fewest possible staff. These pharmacies are strictly guided by an unforgiving system of “metrics” that forces them to view patients and drugs as numbers and statistics instead of actual people and their medications.

Chain metrics include filling prescriptions within a certain time limit, how many prescriptions are filled in a day or week, the number of vaccinations a pharmacy is able to give, patient compliance with medications, how long it takes to answer the phones, and many others. Pharmacy managers’ bonuses depend on how well their pharmacy meets these metrics. This makes pharmacy managers push their staff to unrealistic levels to maximize their own bonuses, which the rest of the staff won’t benefit from.

One of the worst parts of these metrics is that when a store does meet them, the staff actually gets punished in a way: corporate decides that pharmacy can meet those same demanding metrics with even fewer staff. On the other hand, if a store isn’t meeting their metrics, corporate does not try to help them improve and instead will reduce its staff (to save money in this case).

Working for a large chain pharmacy sets up the staff to fail and become burned out in a short amount of time. This does not encourage quality patient care. One pharmacist I know, who worked for the same chain pharmacy I used to, told me that she felt extremely burnt out after being a pharmacist for only 2 years! Chain pharmacies aren’t inclined to treat their staff well and view them all as replaceable.

Replaceable Pharmacists

The number of pharmacy jobs available in Illinois has dwindled in the last few years because there were 6 (now 5) pharmacy schools in Illinois with 40-200 graduating from each school every year. So, these ‘burned-out’ chain pharmacists know that they could be replaced in an instant with a new graduate (who might even take a lower salary). Pharmacists who work for chains don’t work there because they love their job, they stay because they don’t have much of a choice. Wouldn’t it make sense that you should want to receive healthcare and medications from someone who actually likes what they’re doing?

I became a pharmacist because I wanted to work with people and help them become healthier and make informed decisions regarding their medications. I was appalled by the way patients were treated at the chains, but I was taught to believe that that is just the way pharmacy is.

During my tenure at the chain pharmacy, I had my own medications filled at a different big chain pharmacy and was frustrated there by simple things like how long I would be standing in line waiting to pick up before someone would notice me standing there. There were always issues with my refills. I thought pharmacy as a whole (working in one and being a patient) was all just one giant bundle of frustration.

My initial interview with the chain was all about meeting metrics and had no questions about patient care or customer service. After the interview, I was even more disillusioned with the chain and sought out a job elsewhere. One of the first thoughts I had was Oswald’s Pharmacy! I grew up in Naperville and had heard about Oswald’s and how unique of a store it was—medical equipment, a huge gift section, post office, and of course, a great pharmacy.

Switching to an Independent Pharmacy

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At Oswald’s Pharmacy, we don’t have corporate metrics dictating how we provide healthcare to our customers. I actually enjoy what I do and am more than happy to take the time to answer any questions customers have. I have more time to talk to patients regarding any questions they may have about their medications or medical conditions than I ever did at the chain I worked at. I have been able to get to know a lot of my patients by name and what is going on in their lives. I pride myself on being more than just a robotic medication dispenser (I’m sure the chains will eventually just replace all of their staff with robots!) and actually doing what I went to school for–providing quality healthcare.

Let’s look at some of the top reasons to have your prescriptions filled at an independent pharmacy instead of a chain:

  1. Your money spent at independent pharmacies benefits people who live and work in the community, not to some distant corporate giant who underpays their staff. Many of these pharmacies also give back to their communities in ways that chains don’t. For example, at Oswald’s, we donate money and items to local western suburb organizations and charities. We even have a yearly community partner!
  2. Independent pharmacies care about you as a person, and not just as a number or metric-builder. We take pride in building long-lasting, trusting relationships with our patients. According to a survey by Consumer Reports, more than 50% of people who use an independent pharmacy said their pharmacist knew them by name, compared to only 14% at chain pharmacies.
  3. A lot of independents have offered free, same-day prescription delivery even before COVID-19! At Oswald’s Pharmacy, we offer free local prescription deliveries 7 days a week!
  4. Pharmacists at independent locations are often more available to answer questions and give over-the-counter recommendations than at chain pharmacies.
  5. If a medication is expensive, not covered, or not available, we often try to reach out to the prescriber the same day to find a cheaper alternative for the patient.
  6. Independent pharmacies care about their staff: when COVID-19 first hit, the store owner here at Oswald’s took the time to personally install plastic shield guards at each register to protect the staff and customers. Our managers also made sure that we had plenty of PPE and disinfecting agents available to all team members and made sure that we felt safe at work.

Now that I think about it, I never feel unsafe at work. Meanwhile. I hear horror stories of chain pharmacies not providing their staff with any kind of PPE, and some even (initially) forbade their staff from wearing masks, gloves, or other PPE because it would “promote fear.”

Get the Pharmacy Service You Deserve

If you are looking for personalized service and a business that looks out for your needs, an independent pharmacy is what you’re looking for. If you would like to know more about independent pharmacies or about how Oswald’s Pharmacy can serve your needs, please give me a call or send me an email. I love hearing from you and will get back to you as soon as I can!

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Written by Hannah, PharmD

Hannah started working for Oswald’s Pharmacy in 2018. Hannah is a pharmacist focused on service and pharmacy innovation.