I can’t even begin to understand how tough it must be for those impacted by the Walmart news. I’m sure if you’re reading this by now, you’ve likely heard the numbers, but according to a Bloomberg article:
“A person familiar with the decision said the pharmacy cuts will represent less than 3% of all health and wellness staffers in the U.S. According to posts on LinkedIn and independent message boards frequented by Walmart employees, that could include as many as 40% of senior pharmacists, along with cuts for some new hires and reductions in part-time staffers.”
I spent some time over the past two days reading comments on the Rx Radio Instagram and Facebook page as well as a few reddit threads to get a feel for the reactions of the industry and people impacted. I am writing this article to provide some of my thoughts on what happened, what I would do if this happened to me, and what I think the future looks like going forward.
Should we have expected this?
Walmart has widely been touted as a great place to work for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. Among other things, this is likely because they’ve always had ample coverage (pharmacy overlap) and plenty of tech hours. I don’t, nor have I ever worked for Walmart, so this is purely an assumption. But it reminds me of my days working at Target Pharmacy prior to the CVS acquisition. At Target, the phone lines closed for lunch, we had pharmacist overlap at some of the busier stores, and we usually had enough tech coverage where we didn’t feel like every day was a complete failure. This, in addition to a great culture focused on the patient and developing leaders, were the reasons Target people were known to have sipped the “Target Kool-aid.”
But as we saw, this came to an abrupt end with CVS’s acquisition of Target’s Pharmacy business. Then, that overlap…gone. Tech hours? Much lower. Some pharmacists who had less then 40 hours a week had their benefits at risk. See, companies like CVS and Walgreens appear to operate extremely thin with their payroll. After transitioning my store from a Target to a CVS, I changed companies and went to Publix Pharmacy. Another pharmacy that was touted as a great place to work, and because of similar reasons as Target. But, boom. Sometime between 2016 and 2017, they had a large change to the way they allocated tech hours, and some stores were left with less than 50% of their usual tech count. It is my understanding they brought in a company to evaluate their productivity and how they were allocating human resources against those, resulting in drastic cuts to tech hours. While this didn't make major headlines and there were no layoffs, this had a major impact to many Publix employees. Some technicians were forced to pick up store side hours to try to get to 40 hours a week. In worse scenarios, some were forced to find work elsewhere because their store didn’t have hours even outside the pharmacy to lend, and those technicians had families to feed and bills to pay.
With my above experiences, unfortunately, hearing about the massive Walmart layoff doesn’t seem like a shock, but more of a “oh it happened to them too,” feeling. Now, don’t get me wrong, this Walmart news is definitely different. Especially if the allegations are true that 40% of those let go were in fact “senior” pharmacists. That indicates not only the potential to run a lot leaner with human resources at the pharmacy level, but they also may be looking to lower the standard wage of a pharmacist, or at least lower than what those senior pharmacists were making.
Pharmacy ain’t what it used to be: No S%*#
Two of the common comments I read were “stay away from pharmacy” or “quit now while you can” directed at current pharmacy students. Yes, pharmacy is definitely different now. It’s no longer a career where you go to school and can be guaranteed a six-figure job at graduation. That’s gone, and there’s no secret those days are gone. Now, you have to work for it. You have to network, specialize, become selfaware of your skills and double down. If not, it may not turn out well for your career in pharmacy. But that being said, what’s the alternative if you want to be a healthcare provider? Nursing? That’s a tough job, their market saturation isn’t getting any better, and sometimes they’re paid half of what a pharmacist makes today. Physician? There has been a huge decrease in the quality of life of physicians due to increasing CMS pressures and other market drivers making it a very difficult career to pursue and enjoy. PA? Yeah, that’s a nice shiny object now, but what happens when they too get oversaturated? My point is here is that, most careers in healthcare are going through difficult times. So for these online Twitter/Reddit warriors that say “stay away,” I think it’s bad advice if there’s no context. If someone wants to be a pharmacist, that’s what they should be. Looking for a stable six-figure guaranteed job, then no, this ain’t it chief. But there are so many reasons why pharmacy is still an awesome career! I recorded a podcast episode explaining my reasons why, you can listen to that here.
A lot of the other comments I have read have been around how pharmacy organizations don’t do anything for us. Mainly directed at APhA and their lack of “caring.” I’d like to point out a few things. First and foremost, APhA operates as a business. A business that people have proudly said they haven’t contributed a dime to. It’s hard to hear people say they’ve never spent a dime on dues yet complain the organization hasn't done anything for them. If you’re not happy with what they do, then…do something about it. Every organization is a system made up of people, people that could include you. Get involved, work your way to the leaders to express your opinion or concern. OR, become one of the leaders and make the change happen yourself. OR, create your own organization to gather a group of like-minded individuals to create change. OR, continue to complain about it on Facebook while taking no action. The choice is yours.
Understanding that every organization and business is made up of individuals, there isn’t a soul in the pharmacy industry that doesn’t feel for those impacted, even the decision makers at Walmart who had to make this call. But let’s say APhA was like, “guys, we have to do something.” What would they do? Walk down to Walmart’s headquarters and demand change? Organize a protest outside the office where only a handful of pharmacists would likely show up? What immediate action do you expect? And these are not rhetorical questions, I would literally like to hear from you and see these ideas presented in a way that’s actionable. What happened at Walmart, and previously Target and Publix as I explained, is not any one of these organization’s fault. While this is an absolute tragedy, we can’t waste time on pointing fingers and figuring out who’s fault it is. Stop complaining. TAKE ACTION. Don’t want to take action with a national organization? Try your State Board of Pharmacy.
On a separate note, would it kill APhA to draft a response, no it wouldn’t. But I also understand that companies this large have many policies and procedures in place on how to handle political and other PR matters. We really don’t know the exact reason why there hasn’t been a response and it could be a combination of a few things. Hopefully, we’ll hear something soon. |Update: see APhA’s response here.|
What would I do?
Again, this did not happen to me, so I truly can’t begin to imagine what people and their families must be going through. However, I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone who was let go, and while everyone’s circumstance is likely different, I tried to think about what I would do if I was in a certain situation and immediately needed to find work and make money to ensure bills are paid.
- First thing I would do is post on LinkedIn. Especially being that the news is so widespread it likely wouldn’t be a shock to anyone. I’d try to reach out to my network there (and other social media platforms) to see if I can get any leads.
- I’d do a typical online search for open jobs in my area and apply for hours, days at a time, until I felt as though I covered my area.
- I’d drive to independent pharmacies to see if I could support them in anyway, whether it be PRN, part-time, or MTM services. Who knows, you may run into an independent who was looking for a pharmacist.
- I would apply to staffing companies that provide relief to organizations with PRN staffing needs.
- In the case that I needed money ASAP and I may need to buy myself another month, I would start selling things I don’t need on eBay. You’d be surprised at the preowned things people actually buy on there. I actually believe the average person has about $1-$2K of stuff that can sell over a month on ebay that would be able to buy you sometime in landing a new job. Don’t have an ebay account? Create one. Don’t know how much your stuff is worth? Go to ebay, search your item and once you find it, or the closest thing to it, filter your results to see what has sold in the past 3 months and set your price using the prices you see people actually paying. Use your phone to take a picture of the item and post. Rinse and repeat.
- If my situation was not heavily dependent on the need to pay bills and find a new job immediately, I’d take the time to reflect on if pharmacy is something I’m still passionate about. With the way things are now with social media and the internet, someone could make a living literally doing anything they are passionate about doing. Passionate about baking? Create a personal brand around baking cookies and if you do it right, you could create a sustainable business that could replace your pharmacist salary (or more) by just, you guessed it, baking.
I’m sure the above are what most people would likely expect to do, but even if it helps one person, that’s all that matters to me.
Some responses to other comments:
“Will other Retail Pharmacies follow?”
Like I mentioned before, I think other companies, especially CVS and Walgreens, were already running pretty lean with their payroll expenses. But, pharmacies downsizing and closing stores is not a new trend. I think that will continue. One thing I think may start to happen is salaries will begin to fall close to or under $100K. It’s important to note many staff pharmacists in a hospital don’t make over $100K.
“Will Pharmacy techs take over?”
I think this is a legitimate question and I’d say the answer is…probably. There are many states exploring regulations allowing techs to check techs, increasing tech to pharmacist ratio, and tele-pharmacy services allowing pharmacists to verify from remote locations. I think this is really the future of the profession, alongside automations in dispensing. And while, yes, this decreases the need for pharmacists, I think it makes sense. I mean, c’mon… Some pharmacies don’t even have technicians at the pharmacy on most days. Which means a highly trained medication expert is typing a prescription, filling that prescription, and ringing up patients. That’s not why we went to school. And I think the market is starting to catch up to the fact that the majority of work that happens in a pharmacy doesn’t require a PharmD to perform them.
“I’m a pharmacy student and this is terrifying.”
There’s been a lot of students who have posted their reactions making it known it’s a scary time. And that is completely justified. However, I wrote an article over a year ago explaining why I think it’s an exciting time to be in pharmacy and why I would go to pharmacy all over again if I had to. You can read that article here. If I was in pharmacy school, and my goal was to be a pharmacist, I wouldn’t take the advice of most who say “run away.” I would take note of the current landscape and start to see how the profession is changing and figure out how I’d be able to have the most impact. I’d also realize that focusing on a niche would likely increase my chances of having a successful career and that the cutting of “senior pharmacists” actually favors new grads to openings. While it may be at a lower salary, it’s still an opportunity.
“How do we change the profession to ensure this doesn’t happen.”
I honestly don’t know how you can ensure this situation at Walmart doesn’t happen. But what I can say is that just talking about it in forums alone won’t help, every one of us needs to do something to advance our profession, in one way or another. Everyone has their own set of unique skills and passions to be able to do it. It is important to note that while retailers are streamlining, there are many other companies led by pharmacists that are raising millions of dollars to innovate and advance the profession of pharmacy. For example: AspenRx Health
“We need to unionize!”
A lot of people have mentioned the answer to preventing this to continue is unionizing. I will not get into a discussion here about wether that is the best remedy or not, but I would say to those who think it will help, please also take the time to research all of the negative things that come along with unionizing and then make a decision. Often times people only hear about the positive things unions can bring, but also don’t realize the negative impacts it can also have. Plus, as some have mentioned on social media, corporations usually have “union police” that shut down union-like activities by their employees REAL fast. So, attempting to unionize can likely put your reputation, and sometimes your job, at risk.
“The $4 Generic list killed Pharmacy.”
While this may have really been a sign that things were not heading in the right direction, I really don’t think it “killed” retail. This was the beginning of the realization that generic drugs are cheap as hell and the margin on them are extremely high. Consumers being offered medications at an extremely low price was going to happen in the industry one way or another. Walmart was just the first to do it. If you think a company like amazon or Honeybee Health wasn’t going to come along and disrupt drug pricing, you’d be confused.
The Future of the Market
Bottom line is, pharmacy schools and large retailers overshot the demand and what we are seeing over the last 5–10 years is the market starting to level. We are already seeing schools see a decrease in applicants. We’re also seeing it has become easier to get into pharmacy schools. And I do believe there will be a decrease in the rate/quality of graduates to come.
What should the industry do?
I would say let’s welcome the automations and increased trainings for technicians to allow pharmacists to provide and solely focus on clinical services and designing technologies to improve outcomes. I’d advise every pharmacist to find a niche in anything they are passionate about and see how pharmacists can play a better/bigger role. If what you imagine is something pharmacists can/should be doing and it doesn’t exist, create it.
With all the negativity that one can find on the internet about pharmacy, I think it’s important to also realize all the opportunities that are now available for pharmacists to have a role in and how there are new ways and opportunities for pharmacists to have an impact on patient care popping up every year. I also think it is important to fill your social media feeds with positivity. That’s also one thing I really like about the pharmacist slack channel. It’s a group of pharmacists really looking to advance the profession in different ways. One member, David Berkowitz, responded with a comment to the Walmart news that I think was really powerful.
“Failure” is important. Personally I measure my success through my family, relationships and learnings. I am hopeful that as a profession we become defined by what we do next.
As you could see, I could go on with my thoughts about the future and why what happened at Walmart is devastating. But, I think it’s important we look forward and figure out what to do next in advancing our profession.
Thanks for reading.
Richard Waithe, PharmD | Richard@vucahealth.com
Connect with me on any of your favorite social media platforms, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the article and wether you agree or disagree with my comments.