Pharmacists face pandemic burnout, too

Everyone knows that doctors and nurses are burned out from COVID-19, facing staffing shortages, full emergency rooms and COVID exposures — but one group of health care workers has been overlooked and face its own set of COVID-related difficulties: pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

“Most pharmacists who’ve been in the field for a while, have been telling students ‘just stop, don’t go to pharmacy school, do something else, anything else,’” one clinical pharmacist in Boston said. “I’m hoping that the people who are going into pharmacy school are doing it because they truly have a passion for it and will fight for it and want to do nothing else with their lives.”

This pharmacist, who asked to remain anonymous for job security, said she’s faced challenges unique to the COVID era, including staffing shortages due to COVID outages and people leaving the industry. She’s even been asked to come into work while caring for her COVID-positive child, she said.

Mike Reppucci, who has owned Cambridge’s Inman Pharmacy since 1984, had three of seven pharmacists out this past week due to COVID and one on parental leave. He had to pick up 30 extra hours to fill the gaps, and other staffers have worked 10 to 20 hours extra. He even enlisted his son — an EMT who’s certified to do so — to administer COVID vaccines.

“It’s making everybody tired,” he said.

Another pharmacist, a who works at a specialty pharmacy outside of Boston, said she’s so tired at the end of the work day that she “can barely walk” after her shift. “I feel overworked and exhausted,” she said. “I’m in the call center, I’m in the lab. I’m just floating wherever I can, doing work that used to be done by like three different people.”

She added that the rapidly changing news around the pandemic has affected demand for certain drugs, especially ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug proved to be ineffective at treating COVID-19, but misinformation circulated last year, touting its benefits in fighting COVID-19.

The owner of the pharmacy she works at “loved selling ivermectin” when demand spiked last summer to “dozens of batches a day,” to the chagrin of his staff. “It’s been kind of a point of contention,” she said.

When state regulators cracked down on the distribution of the drug for COVID-19, as indicated by its dose, customers who previously filled ivermectin prescriptions there were “pissed” at her, she said. She added that doctors have even called and made up parasitic infections to get patients the drug.

Doctors and patients also get frustrated with pharmacists when supply chain issues prevent them from filling prescriptions, sometimes for a month or more.

The Boston-based clinical pharmacist said she sometimes has to call 20 hospitals to get her hands on a vial of a needed drug, which may still not be enough.

“Some doctors are more understanding than others about the shortages or what we can and can’t do, others are more like ‘No, I don’t care. This is what I need. You need to get it no matter what,’” she said.

As the faces and perceived gatekeepers of medications, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians can often bear the brunt of anger from patients, nurses and doctors, sometimes even facing “verbal and sometimes even physical abuse,” said Monica Mahoney, a clinical pharmacy specialist of Infectious Diseases at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, speaking broadly about the state of the industry.

Pharmacists have also been responsible for keeping up with the changing regulations and emergency use authorizations for COVID-related therapies, including vaccines, and, of course, administering vaccines.

“You’re expected to fill prescriptions, counsel patients and give all these vaccines in less time with the same workforce or possibly less workforce if you had attrition as well, and also be responsible for keeping up with new doses for each vaccine,” Mahoney said of the conditions.

Of course, all of this is not only adversely affecting the pharmacists, but the patients as well.

“They have much longer wait times and they don’t always get the ideal treatment that they would if we had all the resources available to us and we had everything we want,” the Boston pharmacist said. “They end up getting an alternative treatment or like second- or third-line, whatever we can get our hands on.”

All these added stressors can lead to more errors — 3% for each additional prescription filled per hour, per one University of Arizona study– and longer patient hospitalizations.

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