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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Local pharmacists stress importance of community-based stores amid Amazon announcement of online pharmacy

When Linda Garrelts MacLean owned a pharmacy, she would get calls daily from patients asking about prescriptions or medical needs. She knew everything there was to know about them.

Long after she left to become a professor at Washington State University’s College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, her old patients still remembered her and the care she provided.

It’s one of the reasons local pharmacies are so vital to the community, MacLean said, but they’re going away.

Amazon’s announcement this week that it was opening an online pharmacy worried local pharmacists about the future of independently owned chains and stores. But owners are trying to remind the community that their value can’t be replaced.

“Pharmacists are much more than dispensers of medication,” MacLean said.

Amazon’s new pharmacy allows shoppers to set up a profile that will include their medications on Amazon’s websites. Most insurance is accepted, but Prime members who don’t have insurance can purchase medication for a discount.

Brandon Arthur, pharmacist at a Spokane hospital system, began his pharmacy career in 2011, and he’s seen how the industry has changed.

Pharmacists now take on more of a clinical role as opposed to only filling prescriptions, he said. Pharmacists especially help those with chronic issues.

In Washington, pharmacists are considered health care providers, MacLean said. This allows them to provide direct patient care. A patient might go to a pharmacist if their kids have strep throat and they suspect they do as well. A pharmacist can then write the prescription for medication.

Pharmacists are an important part of the community, MacLean said. They are people you can rely on in a crisis.

“Community pharmacists have always been one of the more trusted jobs out there that people have always looked to,” Owl Pharmacy owner Amanda Goyke said. “I think it’s going away from that.”

When Amazon announced its plan on Tuesday, the stocks of CVS Health Corp., Walgreens and Rite Aid tumbled. But it likely won’t be Walgreens or CVS that will be hurt.

Goyke said it’s too early to tell how Amazon will affect her business but that independent pharmacies are on the decline anyway, especially during a pandemic when nearly everything is done online.

Arthur said he anticipates smaller pharmacies will feel the effects of Amazon’s decision. He said he hopes Amazon will partner with the right people to continue to innovate in the field.

“They’re certainly in a great position to help further the profession if they partner with the right folks,” he said.

Amazon’s new services may be good for some people, MacLean said, but most local pharmacies offer the same services.

Many independent pharmacies also offer online ordering and delivery, she said. Some are even open 24 hours.

The convenience of Amazon may resonate with some people, but MacLean said patients who know and trust their pharmacists will likely continue going there.

“This may in fact be a good choice for some individuals,” MacLean said. “But people are also going to remember they can get the same services at their local pharmacy.”

Arthur said he doesn’t think the role of a pharmacist will ever go away. Even Amazon will likely still need to have a pharmacist available, although that position will likely be remote.

“It might look different, but you’re still going to need to have a pharmacist available even just by phone,” he said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.