A Gentle Reminder from 2 Pharmacy Students

Chad Worz, PharmD, BCGP
ASCP Executive Director and CEO

Elena Beauregard & Amanda V. Loomis
University of Rhode Island
College of Pharmacy, Class of 2020

This past November, we were sitting in Chipotle, about an hour into a three-day weekend, unable to keep the discomfort and surprise out of our voices. It should have been as stress-free as two 3rd year pharmacy students could get, yet there were people staring at us as we exclaimed:

“They used the word ‘junkies.’ My jaw dropped! I looked around to see if everyone else heard the same thing, but no one seemed phased by it.”

While we tried to enjoy our burritos, we couldn’t help but replay the experience we’d had at a recent pharmacy meeting, when a professional speaker referred to patients struggling from opioid use as “junkies.” Our professors teach us to use language to break down stigma, but that’s not what happened there. Maybe using this language seems even more foreign to us, as a younger generation because we’ve had the opportunity for it to be brought to our attention. And if so, perhaps as students, maybe this is where we can work together with pharmacists to help our profession move forward.

Don’t you just need to label it?

In a similar manner, hearing the dreaded, “don’t you just need to label it?” from a patient is enough to make any pharmacist or intern cringe. We have to decide to either spend a few minutes to explain that our role has grown to more than just counting pills and slapping a label on it, or we thank them for their patience and provide them with care while managing the needs of others as well. No matter what is ultimately decided, it’s easy to slip back into a routine. In retail pharmacy this could be an automatic, “picking up?” when someone walks to the counter, or something as serious as alert fatigue, which can happen in any setting. Again, it’s easy to do- we can’t be the only ones who have accidentally answered our cell phones with, “Hi, thank you for calling...” before correcting ourselves.

Change isn’t easy.

What isn’t easy is change. Our profession is moving forward quickly, as are the challenges that we have to face. The opioid crisis, outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, and our growing population of older adults are just a few. In pharmacy school we’re taught to group things together to help memorize treatment options. To contradict that- we’re also taught how to not group certain things, like our patients. “Users”. “Alcoholics”. “Junkies”. These terms are powerful and create a stigma surrounding the conditions that we have been trained to help patients manage and overcome. Even the term “anti-vaxxers” is a label that minimizes the human behind it. Keeping these preconceived notions about a patient may be considered easier, a way to prepare ourselves or describe an interaction, but it limits our ability to help and educate both our patients and our colleagues.

“I will embrace and advocate changes that improve patient care”, is directly from our oath. As pharmacists and interns, we took a vow to do more than just treat a disease. We’re treating people. With patient centered care as our new care model, health professionals have done a wonderful job at redirecting the focus back to the individual. But the improvement needs to go further than just our clinical approach; The words we use are powerful enough to either push away those that need our help the most, or bring our nation together to provide education and overcome stigma and disease.

But we CAN do it.

The phrase, “if you’ve met one older adult, then you’ve met one older adult”, has been uttered more times than we can count in our three years of pharmacy school. The complexity of an individual is what makes not only geriatrics, but all of pharmacy beautiful. Simplifying people into categories or using terms to describe them takes away what makes our jobs so unique and satisfying. Going forward take that extra moment, like you may have to explain that our jobs are more than counting pills, to actively change the way you approach someone you may originally have categorized. Be the type of pharmacist that you wanted to be when you first took that oath, the type that ASCP is proud to have representing the future of healthcare. Good pharmacists don’t just label bottles, and great pharmacists don’t just label patients.

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