Through online pharmacies, consumers can order and receive drugs and refills their physicians have prescribed without waiting in line or even leaving home.
This level of convenience, as well as the privacy afforded through online transactions, makes Internet pharmacies appealing to customers, says Steve Hall, RPh, manager of clinical pharmacy operations for drugstore.com. "Customers provide us with health information and ask us questions [via the Internet or a toll-free telephone number] that they may not ask in a traditional pharmacy setting because the pharmacist is rushed or their neighbor is standing right next to them," Hall says. For example, online customers are more likely to ask what to do if they miss a birth-control pill or how weight-loss drugs interact with other drugs, he explains.
Online pharmacists can respond more thoroughly to such inquiries than their retail counterparts, adds Gayla Waller, RPh. "In the retail setting, I had a phone in one ear and a customer in the other ear asking where to find the toilet paper," she says. "It was hard to spend quality time with patients answering questions." Now, "it's a good feeling to be able to research a question and find the best answer for someone," she says.
The neighborhood pharmacies of yesteryear -- where pharmacists personally knew their patients and medical conditions -- have all but disappeared. "What has happened over the years is the personal relationship between pharmacists and patients has deteriorated, because [that system] is not efficient economically," Waller says. Barring the return of the "ideal" system, online pharmacies are a good option for patients in need of in-depth information and counseling, she says.
Advanced technology streamlines an online pharmacist's job, Waller points out. At CVS.com's distribution center, an automated dispensing machine has the capacity to fill 50,000 prescriptions per day. Before prescriptions are sent out, pharmacists double-check the accuracy of each one by viewing an image of the prescribed drug in the bottle next to an image on their computer screens of what the drug should look like, Waller explains. "Technology is decreasing the chance for mistakes," she says. "And instead of hunting for bottles on a shelf, a pharmacist's time is freed up to counsel patients."
E-commerce is a "legitimate channel" for distributing prescription drugs, Hall says. "It'll do nothing but grow in the future, and as it continues to grow, we'll need more qualified pharmacists involved," he says.