How many movies have you been to where the guy falls/jumps off a sixteen story building and lands on the sidewalk, and someone yells, “Quick, call a doctor”? Or ‘Harry the Snake’ walks into the bar with his blonde girl friend (usually they’re blondes) and his enemies hit him with a spray of bullets from three machine guns and his girlfriend shrieks, “Quick, call a doctor”.
We have all been witnesses to these kinds of scenarios thousands of times over our lifetimes, and each time it reinforces the notion that physicians are not only medical professionals, they are miracle workers capable, Lazarus like, to bring the hopelessly dead back to life.
Think about all the television series over the years which feature physicians as the central figures. Marcus Welby, the kindly fatherly GP, (I know this one really dates me), was one of the first. Then we had ER, Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, General Hospital, Nip/Tuck, Scrubs, Private Practice, House, Doogie Howser MD, St. Elsewhere, MASH, etc.
In each and every case the physician (usually portrayed by a handsome male) is portrayed as selfless, kind, dedicated to his patients, highly skilled, sexy, and incredibly competent. If medicine went out to buy this kind of branding / public relations (though it hardly needs it), medicine could never afford it. This kind of positive imaging is beyond price; it borders on religion. The physician is the high priest of the healthcare pyramid.
When has anyone ever heard someone cry out, “Quick, call a pharmacist”? Maybe when the non-pharmacist grocery store manager, calls for the pharmacist over the intercom system, when he gets a complaint from a customer that she is waiting too long to get her pills, and the pharmacist has sneaked into the wash room.
Think about the branding that pharmacists are getting these days. What do 90% of the public see when they encounter a pharmacist? More often, this is an individual sitting at a stool staring at a computer in a 10’ by 20’ cubicle bordered by the delicatessen and the produce department and surrounded by DSTM (drug store type merchandise in industry parlance). This is not the image of a hero; it’s not even the image of a highly educated clinical professional. This is the image of a retail clerk. This image gets reinforced when the customer takes a bunch of store merchandise to the pharmacy counter (line ups at the front are too long) and the pharmacist is required by store management to ring in all the pizzas, Pepsi, chips etc. and bag everything for the customer.
Sure there is the little mandatory 4’ X 4’ ‘consulting room’ off to the side, but it’s usually filled with merchandise and you rarely see anyone in there. And then there is the white coat imbedded in the mind of the pharmacist as a badge of professionalism (remember the white coat ceremony). Instead this white coat has become a bill board for whatever the non-pharmacist pharmacy owner wants to project the pharmacist as being: No Frills pharmacist? Healthwatch Pharmacist? Drug Basics Pharmacist? Etc. This is all about corporate branding…but branding what?
If pharmacists ever hope to regain control of their profession, and let alone their image, they are going to have to take a really hard look at what the public actually sees 90% of the time. Forget about what the colleges of pharmacy tell you. Or what the regulatory bodies and associations tell you.
The big push lately, in Ontario at least, has been injections. Patients don’t see “doctor” when they see a pharmacist giving injections, patients see “nurses”. But as we all know, flus shots have become great traffic builders. Unfortunately this whole emphasis on injections has done nothing to enhance the image of pharmacists as knowledge workers, but more as technicians.
Branding is critical in establishing value. Compensation, respect, working conditions, pride all fall out of great branding. When making life and work choices, pharmacists must consider image as condition critical. Otherwise it’s going to be a lifetime of, “Can you please point me in the direction of the toilet paper?”