My day job is a dispensing assistant for a national pharmacy chain. Basically, it means I’m a trainee dispenser and I have been training since March. Before that, I was a HCA (Health Care Assistant) and worked in the shop. I really like the job, more so since I started in the dispensary. It’s a steep learning curve though, both in the shop and in the dispensary. Despite collecting prescriptions since I was 16 or so I found there was a lot I didn’t know about both prescriptions and pharmacies.
A lot of things I don’t think the general public realise so here is an informative post about some of the things you need to know about pharmacies.
We Can’t Open Without A Pharmacist
Pharmacies are regulated by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) as are pharmacists themselves. There are a lot of legal requirements we have to adhere to most of which you probably won’t ever know about or even notice. One though that does affect you is the Responsible Pharmacist Regulations – these state that a pharmacist must be present for the store to open. We cannot open without one though we can operate without one for two hours maximum but if they don’t turn up at store opening we can’t open. This means we can’t just slip your already made up prescriptions through the door either and you can’t even come and buy a simple bottle of shampoo. We can’t even dispense when they’re no pharmacist. Usually, we use the time to do other stuff like stock checks and tidying up.
On top of this, while we can stay open while the pharmacist is off-site there are a few things we can’t do. We can’t sell any over the counter medication (all the stuff behind the till – the ones that have a little P printed on them) and we can’t give out medication. A lot of pharmacists don’t even get much lunch break, most eat on the go.
Prescriptions Have Strict Requirements
Prescriptions have legal requirements too. It is illegal to dispense prescriptions without certain information such as the date, the name and signature of the doctor dispensing. It is also illegal to change information on the prescription yourself – like the date, or the dose. This has to be done by a doctor and signed once more by the change. We can’t dispense prescriptions early – even if it’s ‘just a day’ and we can’t dispense things that aren’t on the prescription – like tablets when it states capsules.
Prescriptions have an expiry date too. Regular prescriptions are only valid for six months. Once that date is passed we have to return the script to the doctor or put it into confidential waste. Prescriptions for controlled drugs are only valid for 28 days.
We Need To Know Certain Things
Doctors handwriting is awful. Is it a stereotype if it’s true? Either way, most of the time pharmacists can read it, I think there must be a module they do in university. sometimes doctors are trying to as much work as quickly as they can. They’re over-stretched and over-worked and sometimes don’t have time to write everything down. Which is understandable but I need more information than just ‘Amoxicillin’. Or in the case of one prescription – “Scholl support stocky”. I need quantities, and sizes and strengths and forms.
It’s Not Just Taking A Box Out Of A Draw
If it’s just one item it can take us five minutes or it can take us fifteen minutes. Just because there is no one else in the pharmacy doesn’t mean we’re not busy. We do anywhere between 200 to 300 prescriptions a day, that’s around 300-500 items a day. Even one item has to go through the system, checked it’s appropriate, dispensed and checked, bagged up and given out. We have a queue system. There are deliveries, dossette trays, care homes, just in case boxes, district nurses coming in and out getting prescriptions too. We have to put away stock delivered from all the stuff we dispensed the day before, answer phone calls, collect prescriptions from the doctor’s surgeries. We have to make sure the stock is correct, we have put controlled drugs in the correct register. Chase up items, order special items in, chase up prescription problems.
The pharmacy also sells over the counter medication, the pharmacist gives out advice, flu shots, Medicine Use Reviews. The staff offer blood pressure checks, diabetes checks. There are emails from the NHS, the area manager, head office. We have to keep up with our training every month.
There’s a lot to do and we’re trying to fit it all in while making sure people aren’t waiting too long and getting the medication they need.
Sometimes we can’t get hold of medication. Whether it be brand or generic, sometimes there are delays, manufacturing problems, a dozen things that are out of our control. Often if it’s just a brand we can get another brand. Or another form. Or another dose – if we can’t get 80mg maybe we can get 40mg and we’ll talk to your doctor about sorting that out. Sometimes we can’t get any sort of replacement and the doctor has to prescribe a similar medication. Sometimes it’s out of stock for a couple of weeks or even years. We can try and order things but if it’s not available, usually that means that other pharmacies have the same problem, but we try them too. We don’t want people to go without.
There Is So Much Waste
One of the things I hate about my job is the amount of waste we see. Once something leaves the pharmacy it cannot be reused. Things that have been on the shelf and never collected are fine – they are still in our control. We know where they have been and what has happened to them. Once you’ve left the shop we have no control and no guarantee that it’s not been tampered with in some way. It’s not personal and for your safety as much as anything.
So when you don’t use something, it goes straight into a special bin for medical waste. Bins we fill up quickly before they are collected monthly and destroyed. That’s all we can do. Medication has expiry dates, doctors change medication, sometimes people just don’t take their medication. So it ends up back at the pharmacy and in a bin. £300million is wasted each year in unused medication and I’ve seen some of that waste myself. People ordering medication without thinking about whether they really need it, not taking it. I’ve had 200 pounds worth of stock returned before now – all the same item, twenty boxes of it, not even touched. Just ordered, prescribed and dispensed over and over and over again.
There’s Definitely More
There’s a lot to working in a pharmacy, and while you’re only coming in and out for a few minutes a day, we’re there every day trying to make sure everyone gets their medication on time. It’s harder than it looks, even from going from the shop to the dispensary I didn’t realise how much more work there was to do. There’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of stress but it’s worth it. I could work somewhere else with less stress and probably more money but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much and it wouldn’t be as meaningful.
If you have any questions about pharmacies let me know.