Self-Prescribed Solutions

Mom-and-pop drug stores survive amid competition

July, 2001

Never have Wanny and Wing-Ming Cheng been this busy, at least, not since the husband and wife moved their 18-year-old business, Aloha Pharmacy, to a new 1,400-square-foot space in the Discovery Bay in Waikiki in January. Although Aloha Pharmacy serves customers in a tourist-heavy district, it still hasn’t generated the regular clientele it had in the previous location in the Medical Arts Building on King Street. Now, the Chengs face a challenge: “We get as many as 10 new patient profiles a day, which require extra work,” says Wing-Ming, Wanny’s husband and president of Pharma Nutra Inc. “Then we never see them again.” That minor inconvenience may be a blessing in disguise, especially as mom-and-pop pharmacies in Hawaii compete with hospital pharmacies, on-line druggists, national retail outlets and mail-order services. Hawaii is home to 794 registered pharmacists, according to July 2000 statistics by the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism. That’s up from 767 registered pharmacists in 1997 and 694 in 1994.

The best prescription for survival, say Hawaii’s community pharmacists, is to find a niche and combine it with sincere, personal attention to every customer who walks into the store. Aloha Pharmacy’s owners hope they attract new customers thru nutritional counseling and herbal remedies – not the prepackaged herbs found in chain stores, but traditional Chinese medicines preserved in liquid-filled jars. “It’s hard for a lot of community pharmacies,” Cheng says about the fast-paced competition in Hawaii. “It’s not like old times. Compensation is not keeping pace with the industry.”

And the workload that all pharmacists must handle? Very busy, according to the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs. In 1993, the average pharmacist filled 100 prescriptions per day. In 1999, they filled 142 prescriptions. By the year 2004, industry watchers predict pharmacists will be filling an average of 189 prescriptions daily.Community pharmacies also are fighting to keep pace with growing medical needs, according to the National Association of Chain Drugstores. The number of prescriptions dispensed between 2000 and 2005 nationwide is estimated to grow 29 percent (from 2.84 billion in 2000 to 4 billion in 2005), while community pharmacies in the same five-year period are expected to increase only 4.5 percent.

Those figures aren’t hard to swallow for James Lee “Mac” McElhaney, owner of The Pillbox Pharmacy. The mom-and-pop business, located in the same 1,550-square-foot lot in Kaimuki since 1974, managed to retain a loyal, regular client base despite changes in the pharmacy industry. Amid cluttered shelves and medical supplies that reach the ceiling, The Pillbox even offers a “counseling corner,” where customers can receive one-on-one consultation.

There also is a Monday-to-Saturday delivery service for customers who cannot leave their homes. “Personalized service allows customers to ask questions and be listened to as a patient with a name, rather than a number,” McElhaney says. “It’s crucial to establishing a trusting and sustained relationship and a safe and more effective use of medicine.”

The trust between pharmacists and physicians is as crucial. After all, nearly four out of five patients who leave doctors offices leave with medical prescriptions, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association. Independent pharmacists on the average consult with physicians 5.4 times daily on prescription-related issues. Physicians, on the other hand, approve of more than 79 percent of pharmacists’ generic medicine recommendations, and 49 percent of various therapeutic recommendations.

“Patients have access to a pharmacist more than they have access to any other healthcare professional,” says Todd K. Inafuku, executive director for the Hawaii Pharmacists Association. “Pharmacists are getting more involved in terms of practice. They can develop specifically to be able to monitor patients on a regular basis.”


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Cathy S. Cruz