34 Secrets Your Pharmacist Isn’t Telling You

Learn how to save money, avoid mistakes, and get the most out of your visit to the drugstore.

When you pick up your prescription, at a minimum, ask...


What is this drug? What does it do? Why am I taking it? What are possible side effects? and How should I take it? Not only does this help you to use the drug correctly; it’s also a good way to double-check that you’re getting the right drug. Half the prescriptions taken in the U.S. each year are used improperly, and 96 percent of patients nationwide don’t ask questions about how to use their medications.

We're human…

istock/Felipe Caparrós Cruz

And we make mistakes—about two million a year. Ask if we use a bar-code system to help keep us from pulling the wrong drug off the shelf or giving the wrong strength of the right drug. (Find out the truth behind what happens when a doctor's mistake takes someone's life.)

Your pharmacist has spent more time studying drugs than even your doctor has

istock/Robert Kneschke

Go ahead and call me doctor; I’m just not that kind of doctor. Since mid-2004, pharmacy students
must pursue a doctorate in pharmacy (Pharm.D) in order to be licensed. Pharmacists licensed before then must have at least a Bachelor of Pharmacy and pass a series of exams.

All pharmacists are not created equal


A less-qualified pharmacy technician may have actually filled your prescription. Currently, there is no national standard for their training and responsibilities.

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People assume that if it’s over-the-counter, it’s safe


According to Daniel Zlott, a pharmacist at the National Institutes of Health, this may not always be the case for you. “I’ve seen serious complications” with over-the-counter meds, he says.

An over-the-counter version of your medication might do the trick


You may just need to take more pills and forgo insurance reimbursement. But always talk to your pharmacist, and do the math.

We'll save you money if we can

istock/Steve Debenport

“A good part of a pharmacist’s time is spent dealing with patients and their incomes,” says pharmacist Cindy Coffey. Part of that is suggesting generic or OTC alternatives. Or if a doctor has prescribed a newer drug with no generic alternative available, says Zlott, “I might call the doctor to suggest an older drug that’s equally effective.” Here are 24 secrets pain doctors won't tell you.

I’d think twice about using a drive-through pharmacy

istock/Micah Youello

Our drive-through window may be convenient, but most pharmacists don’t like them. An Ohio State study found that pharmacists believe the distractions associated with drive-through service contribute to delays, reduced efficiency and even dispensing errors. They also create the unrealistic expectation of fast-food-like service. So the next time you’re frustrated and stuck behind five cars, try to remember that getting the wrong prescription is much more dangerous than getting the wrong burger at McDonalds’s—and try to be patient.

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The more I know you, the more I can help you


“The better I know you as a patient—your health history, your family, and how busy your life is—the better I can tailor medications to fit your lifestyle,” says Zlott. “You may not want to take a drug three
times a day, for example, and I’ll know that if I know you.” (Here are the things you shouldn't do before a doctor's appointment,)

Generics are a close match for most brand names

istock/&#169 Paul Reid

But I’d be careful with blood thinners and thyroid drugs, since small differences can have big effects.

Don't try to get anything past us


Prescriptions for painkillers or sleeping aids always get extra scrutiny.

When in doubt, ask


I can give you a generic refill that’s different from the one you started with. Online resources like cvs.com let you double-check your pill.

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Use one pharmacy if you can


There’s not some big computer database that tracks your drugs and flags interactions for pharmacists everywhere. If you start using a new pharmacy, make sure we know what you’re taking.

Here's how to avoid lines


It gets busy Monday and Tuesday evenings, since many new prescriptions and refills come in after the weekend. Also, steer clear of pharmacies on the first few days of the month—that’s when Social Security checks arrive and recipients swamp the pharmacy. Generally, the best time to visit is in the middle of the week or during the workday (but stay away at lunch hour).

Look into the $4 generics


Chains like Target, Kroger, and Wal-Mart offer them. And it can’t hurt to ask your pharmacy if it will match the price.

Yelling at me won't help


If I can’t reach your doctor and/or insurance company to approve a refill, there’s nothing I can do about it. “It’s frustrating,” says Zlott, “but I’d be breaking the law in some states if I gave it to you.”

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Pharmacists are required by law in most states to counsel patients and answer their questions


If your pharmacist seems too busy to do talk with you, take your business someplace else.

Pharmacists are filling more prescriptions than ever


“Some pharmacies are so volume-driven that the pharmacist can’t look up all day,” says Coffey. There were a record 3.8 billion prescriptions filled in the U.S. in 2007—a 13 percent increase from 2003. If I’m grumpy, there’s a reason. In most chain stores, I have 15 minutes to fill a prescription, and I get reprimanded if I’m too slow. I may also be expected to answer the phone, counsel patients, call insurance companies, and run the cash register—all while making sure you get the right medicine at the right dosage.

Sometimes we can't read the doctor's handwriting either


E-prescribing can help, but as of 2006, fewer than 20 percent of prescriptions were being electronically transmitted.

I hate your insurance company as much as you do

istock/Nick M. Do

“Even if something’s working for you, the insurance company may insist you switch to something else,” says pharmacy owner Stuart Feldman. “I’m stuck in the middle trying to explain this to customers.” These are the 18 secrets your health insurance company is keeping from you.

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We can give flu shots in most states


Just ask us. Also know that when I ask, “Would you like to get a flu shot today?” I’m not just asking for your health; flu shots are so profitable that some stores give clerks a monetary bonus at certain times of the year based on how many immunizations they sell.

People take too many drugs


Two out of every three patients who visit a doctor leave with at least one prescription for medication, according to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices. “Drugs are an easy solution,” says Feldman, “but there are other solutions.”

Always ask to get the lowest price

lowest-pricepikselstock/ShutterStockWhen it comes to paying for prescriptions, you have to ask to get the lowest price. In a Consumer Reports study, secret shoppers who were quoted a higher price at first were often able to negotiate a discount if they just asked. So the lesson is: be pushy.

We wear white to inspire trust

wear-whitepikselstock/ShutterStockMany of us require our pharmacists wear white lab coats because we know it inspires trust. In one study, three out of four respondents judged a pharmacist in a white lab coat as more competent and approachable compared to one who was just dressed professionally.

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Beware this word: phenylephrine

bewareracorn/ShutterStockThat’s the active ingredient in most over-the-counter cold medicines, but it’s no better than a placebo. Drugmakers started using it after pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that does work, was forced behind the counter because it was being used to make meth.

Want a discount on your prescription?


Ask your doctor for a 90-day refill instead of 30. Most pharmacies offer discounts and mailing services for a three-month supply.

Electronic prescriptions are not instant

electronicBillion-Photos/ShutterStockOrdinarily, they’re sent to a third-party service that then sends them to us in hourly batches. So don’t drive straight to the drugstore after your doctor sends an e-script and expect it to be ready. Call first.

Did you know I can save you a trip to the doctor?


At our in-store clinic, I can treat your child’s ear infection, do a sports physical, diagnose head lice, and more.

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High health-care costs aren’t lining my pockets


Even though pharmacists counsel patients every day, the federal government does not recognize us as health-care providers. That makes it very difficult for us to get reimbursed by insurance companies and government programs for the clinical services we provide.

Ask me if I can fill your prescriptions for Fido too


As long as the same drug is also prescribed for humans, I typically charge less than your vet—and I can even add chicken flavor to make it taste better.

If you’re paying out of pocket for your drugs, shop around


Your generic medication may cost as much as ten times more at some pharmacies than at others, according to a Consumer Reports survey. Check first with GoodRx, a free app that compares local drug prices.

Consider paying with cash


Even if you have insurance, always ask me whether your prescription will cost less if you pay with cash. Sometimes the cash price is less than your insurance co-pay.

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I know that having the pharmacy in the back of the store is annoying


But that design is intentional, in the hope that you’ll see something you’ll be tempted to buy as you walk through the aisles.

Try an independent drug store


If you want more personalized attention and a shorter wait, try an independent drugstore. Independents significantly outperformed chains in customer satisfaction and wait-time surveys conducted by J.D. Power and Consumer Reports.


Sources: Dr. Daniel Zlott, oncology pharmacist, National Institutes of Health; Cindy Coffey, PharmD; Greg Collins, pharmacy supervisor, CVS/pharmacy, California; Stuart Feldman, owner, Cross River Pharmacy, New York. Lisa Gill, deputy content editor at Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs project; David Zgarrick, acting dean and professor for the Department of Pharmacy and Health Systems Sciences at Northeastern University; an anonymous pharmacist at Rite-Aid and an anonymous pharmacist at Walgreens; Jesse Pike Jr., owner of Pike’s Pharmacy in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Lajaynees Ingram, a former drugstore cashier and pharmacy technician

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