March has arrived and once again we get to celebrate Pharmacist Awareness Month; some believe it’s a bit over the top that we need a whole month?
“March is Pharmacist Awareness Month (PAM) — the perfect time to celebrate pharmacists’ expertise and the important role they play in delivering quality care to patients!”
The quotation above is taken straight from the OPA web site. Pharmacists and patients are encouraged to “rethink pharmacy”. The message emphasizes that pharmacists play an “invaluable role”, an “important role” in quality healthcare delivery. If pharmacists play such an important role, how come we have to keep telling people about it? Over and over again pharmacy appears to be proselytising its own importance to an indifferent audience. Certainly there appears to be a reluctance to actually pay real money for these “important services” by governments or by patients themselves.
What an irony then that, almost timed by design, the Toronto Star and Global News should publish the results of an extensive investigation into widespread fraud by pharmacists in the Greater Toronto Area. And we are not talking pennies here, we are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars and in some cases millions. The journalism piece names names and shows pictures of the pharmacists involved. We can see their faces and see where they live, in the mansions that they presumably bought with the stolen money.
On three successive evenings, Global News methodically reviewed the intricate ways that “crooked pharmacists” and “pharmacist fraudsters” have stolen money from the Ministry of Health, Ontario Drug Benefit Program with wanton abandon. Often with little shame, these individuals’ defense is “depression” or “it wasn’t me, it was the hired help” or “my husband wasn’t working, and I had four kids at home”
This stuff is excruciating to watch. The clear suggestion by the investigation is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The ODB is not set up as a forensic agency, it is set up as a payer for goods and services, largely based on an honour system. This means it is wide open to abuse by “unscrupulous pharmacists”. Where are the often quoted “most trusted, most accessible” professionals?
The other message/suggestion in the investigation is that the Ontario regulatory body, the OCP, is real soft on these individuals, and although they are found guilty of professional misconduct, these bad apples are largely fined and lose their licenses for a year or so. Eventually they all get their licences back and presumably go back to their criminal ways. No one goes to jail.
How come a punk who robs a convenience store for $100 to buy drugs spends six months in prison, but a “healthcare professional” can rob the public purse of a million or two and gets only a slap on the wrist?
Interestingly the OCP was never interviewed for this investigation. As usual, the solemn OCP brown stone mansion on Huron Street in Toronto is shown, front door shut but not a person in sight. Likely privacy is sighted as the reason for silence. Yet it is this body that licensed these individuals in the first place, and it is this same body that allows them to return to practice and own a pharmacy after a relatively short period of atonement. What assurances does the OCP have that these individuals will not re offend? Why are they not barred from the profession for life… right across the country? How come some of these perpetrators once actually sat on OCP council?
Pharmacy has been around for a long time. This ‘problem’ appears to have reared its ugly head to this degree in more recent times. Where’s the variable and where’s the constant? The OCP is now raising pharmacist annual registration fees by 20% to help cover costs of more intensive investigations into professional misconduct? So the ‘good guys’ have to pay for the sins of ‘the bad guys’.
Unfortunately, the faces of these people become the faces of pharmacy. This may not be fair or even accurate, but these are the faces that millions of viewers see and lay judgement on. The power the media has to make a specific statement is considerable. Those that don’t like the message sometimes call this “fake news”.
The fact is that the story is not about pharmacists, it’s about pharmacy owners, who in the cases of the examples given, happened to be pharmacists. So were they crooks who became pharmacists, or pharmacists who became crooks? The distinction is an important one.
But it is hard to deny the ‘truth’ when you can see the guy standing in the doorway of his house, in his underwear, and you can look him straight in the face.
Pharmacy certainly has an image problem. How unfair for all the regular pharmacists who toil in the trenches day after day for reduced compensation and under terrible working conditions, not to mention the new innocent grads about to enter the meat grinder.
Too bad it’s all happening during Pharmacist Awareness Month. How about we shorten it to a week?