Techs a front-line resource as pharmacies battle crime

A rash of pharmacy crimes, including two robberies on New York’s Long Island that ended in six deaths in 2011, have spurred efforts within the pharmacy community to protect staff and customers. And pharmacy technicians, along with pharmacists, are being enlisted in the campaign to make pharmacy workplaces safer.

Techs are in a position to play a key role in that campaign, said Megan Sheahan, a PharmD and director of professional affairs for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board. “Technicians work on the front lines of pharmacies … and are often the first person to encounter pharmacy theft or a crime situation,” she said. “So when they are faced with robbery, technicians need to feel empowered to protect not only themselves, but also their patients and colleagues.”

With the rash of violent crimes against pharmacy workers and customers in recent years, pharmacy staff find themselves grappling with new and largely unforeseen concerns about the security of themselves, their coworkers and their customers. “It’s really unfortunate that pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have been put in this situation,” Sheahan said wistfully. “You always have to be on your guard, and technicians have become very aware of that recently.”

The tragic occurrences on Long Island have thrust the issue of pharmacy crime back into the national spotlight. But the problem goes well beyond those widely publicized incidents. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, armed robberies targeting controlled substances at U.S. pharmacies jumped roughly 80% over a five-year period ending in 2010, with nearly 700 such occurrences in 2010 alone.

In response, some pharmacies have taken increasingly drastic steps — even posting signs telling customers they no longer stock widely abused prescription drugs, such as OxyContin. A few have installed bulletproof glass at pharmacy counters.

Neither makes for a good long-term solution to the problem, most pharmacy leaders said. Pharmacies are in business to provide legitimate patients with the medicines they need, not prevent their distribution. And separating pharmacists and technicians from patients is a terrible way to provide medication counseling.

What to do? For pharmacy staff, preparation is key, experts said — doing everything possible to minimize the risk of crime and having a preset plan in place for how to deal with crime and its aftermath.

The overall message, said John Gilbride, director of law enforcement liaison and education for Purdue Pharma, is “to get prepared — to think about what individuals will do if and when … they are being robbed.”

Techs, pharmacists and other staff “should talk about and rehearse what they would do prior to an event occurring,” Gilbride said, including who calls 911 and who takes overall charge, “so everyone knows what their role will be if an event happens.”

“Preparation is the biggest key to this,” Sheahan agreed.

PTCB is stepping up its own effort to educate pharmacy techs about the resources available to combat crime, including the RxPatrol website that tracks and shares data on pharmacy crime, along with PTCB’s own Facebook page and other options.

Some factors that make a drug store more or less likely to be a criminal’s target are beyond the power of a pharmacy technician to do much about. One is simply the geographic location of the store, Gilbride said. “Pharmacies that sit right off of major thoroughfares or highways lend themselves more to be hit … because individuals can … grab what they need, jump in the car and be back on the main road. What they’re looking for in almost all cases is … to be able to get out of that area quickly.”

Beyond that, however, there are plenty of steps that pharmacy staff can take to cut the risk of being robbed. One basic one, according to RxPatrol, is simply to “greet people as they enter the store” and “let people know you are paying attention.”

One key point to remember, Gilbride said, is that “most of these robberies will happen very, very quickly — a minute or a minute and a half at most. These individuals want to get in, find what they’re looking for and get out. That’s where preparation becomes so important.”

Among the tools that will help law enforcement identify and make an arrest: a chart at the entrance to the store to peg the individual’s height and at least two working security cameras trained on the store entrance and at the pharmacy checkout counter. “The deterrent effect of having the camera is very important,” Gilbride said, and that effect is enhanced if store personnel alert customers that the store is under video surveillance. But it’s crucial that employees check the cameras periodically. “Sometimes a camera can be bumped or moved, and no one realizes it,” he noted.

Visibility also is important. “Don’t cover up those windows,” Gilbride urged. “Let it be a [situation] where people walking by can see in. Sometimes people will put up so many posters or advertising in the window, and that prevents a law enforcement officer or even just a civilian from seeing what’s occurring.”

It also may be useful to know about general trends in pharmacy crime. Robberies are somewhat more likely to occur on Mondays, between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., according to data compiled by RxPatrol.

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