A Brief History of the Drive-Thru Pharmacy – Who Created It and How it Spread

by | Sep 24, 2018 | Career, Entrepreneur, Non Traditional Pharmacy Careers

Gary Clinton doesn’t think of himself as an innovator.

He simply saw an opportunity to buy an existing space for his business venture, and he took it. The bank-turned-pharmacy building had a drive-thru window, so he incorporated the drive-thru into his pharmacy business.

That was 1971.

“Customers had to have some way to get their medication without looking for a parking space,” Clinton said in our phone interview.

The lack of dedicated parking spaces for the pharmacy made the decision a necessity rather than an innovation in Clinton’s mind. It turned out, however, that the drive-thru pharmacy was a big hit with many of his customers.

“The drive-thru saves people time and effort,” Clinton said. “Some people don’t want to get out of their cars, or they can’t get out very easily. This helps mothers with children, too.”

Twenty years later, in 1991, Walgreens opened its first drive-thru pharmacy, and then other companies followed suit as well.

Today, the perception of the drive-thru pharmacy varies, with one universal rule: customers tend to love it more than pharmacists do.


Why the hate?

Pharmacists universally push back against the idea of treating medication like fast-food because grabbing a quick meal and picking up potentially life-sustaining medication are fundamentally different.

After spending six years or more honing their craft, pharmacists want to be perceived as health professionals, but drive-thru pharmacies complicate that perception. The focus on quick service diminishes the importance of the patient/pharmacist relationship.

Because fast-food restaurants are optimized for efficiency, it makes little sense to treat modern pharmacy the same way, but we do. The average visit to a fast-food windowslowed to 181 seconds a few years ago, and patients often expect pharmacies to perform similarly.

Customers often prioritize efficiency over personalized service and pharmacists are robbed of the opportunity to impact their patients’ treatment.

Perhaps more importantly, they typically don’t want to learn about side effects while sitting in the drive-thru.


Can you even imagine a McDonald’s employee warning a customer about the negative health effects of eating too much red meat in the drive-thru?

Ironically, pharmacists are the most accessible of all the healthcare professionals.

Because pharmacies are often open 24 hours and they are located near their customers’ homes, pharmacists interact with patients more often than they do with their primary care providers. In the case of high-risk patients, pharmacists may see them as many as 35 times a year.

Despite the frequent contact, though, many patients don’t have relationships with their pharmacist, and they don’t often turn to the pharmacist for support.


What’s the big deal?

Pharmacists are notoriously overwhelmed by the increased volume of prescriptions and the inability to safely do more with less.

The competition for patients has gotten so extreme that many pharmacies offer incentives like gift cards, fuel points, and bonus coupons to customers who fill prescriptions there. As a result, many patients jockey between pharmacies and even buy unnecessary medications to accumulate fuel points.

The situation is so bad in Oregon that pharmacists are pushing back in the form of new rules that govern working conditions in pharmacies.

Pharmacists there believe that stricter rules will protect patients and compel the chain stores to become more patient-centered in their practices.

On the other hand, CVS stores in California rolled out a curbside pharmacy pickup program in 2016 which includes delivery of prescriptions as well as other front-end store products right to your car. Though the program doesn’t include prescription drugs, it could reduce opportunities for pharmacists to interact with and advise patients about medications and their interactions.


What’s next?

The trend toward efficiency and convenience will likely continue as pharmacies compete for customers and for business.

Pharmacies are also moving toward provider-type roles, offering immunizations and other services to customers. As pharmacists move toward patient care services, pharmacy techs have shifted into dispensing roles that were previously limited to pharmacists.

The idea is that pharmacy techs can complete the technical services that don’t require the pharmacists’ professional judgment so that pharmacists are freed up to interact directly with patients.

As pharmacists take on different responsibilities and pharmacy techs absorb more of the pharmacists’ original duties, tensions may arise if pharmacists feel threatened by the increasing role of the techs.

Ultimately, too, pharmacists’ pay may continue to stay flat in the changing workplace.

Change is a constant in almost every industry, and pharmacy is no exception. It’s true, too, that change isn’t always good. (Think Furbies, fart-noise machines, and Crocs.)

In the case of the drive-thru pharmacy, it’s certainly here to stay, so we’d do well to innovate and find ways to make it as efficient as possible.

It’s also likely that the line between innovation and necessity will continue to be blurred.

We should probably all get comfortable with change.

With great power comes great responsibility.

A favorite (and overused) spider-man quote. Like something your mom has told you a thousand times.

I love spider-man. He is my favorite superhero. Young, intelligent, and fresh to his new responsibilities.

But in your life’s story, I’m not spider-man. I’m your Uncle Ben. Hopefully I don’t die in the first act of your story.

You’re the hero. You have a mountain of a task before you: complete pharmacy school and then get your first job.

In today’s pharmacy market, that is no easy task.

So, what’s my advice for pharmacy students?

Two words: relationships + experience

First, let’s address the burdens you carry.

You’re racking up student loans that would make your parents blush.

Your professors test you so often it’s like they’re trying to make you fail.

Between working a job, studying, classes, and a meager social life, you feel like you’re barely functioning. Not at full capacity anyway.

My advice may appear as if I’m trying to add on more to your full plate. While you could take this advice to the extreme, I’m simply adding a new lenses for you to look thru at your career.

First, let’s use a simple analogy.

Imagine your career as an investment.

You may have heard of 401K, Roth IRAs, NASDAX, (blah blah).

Each are tools you can use to help you retire.

The idea is simple: regularly input money into an investment, and over time the compound effect creates a larger investment worth much more than what you put in.

Your career is similar to a 401K investment.

Your currency is relationships and experience. The more currency you have, the more job opportunities open to you. The less currency, the lower amount of jobs opportunities.

You can change the amount of currency you put into your career (investment) by taking simple steps outlined below.

Each small step you take in your career will build up over time. Much like a 401K investment, small weekly actions (deposits) will pay out big time.


Your relationships are your most valuable pharmacy career asset

Your network is your net worth.

Your network is how you’ll find new opportunities, job openings, and learn new career skills.

Every job I ever had was because of who I knew.

That’s why it’s imperative that you don’t ignore pharmacists.

Yes, get to know your professors. Not just on a professional level. Get to know more about them. Treat them as you would a friend.

If there’s one mistake I wish I could take back in pharmacy school was ignoring my fellow pharmacy students. I stayed in my social circle. My drive to meet new people was at 0%.

Even for the competitive world of residency, this rule holds true.

You will be higher ranked for residencies if the residency director trusts you. That’s what relationships are all about. Trust.

Half the time a candidate isn’t chosen because she had the best skills. More often, it’s because the manager trusted the candidate could do the job.

The more people who trust you, the more opportunities will come your way.

Right now in pharmacy school, this may not seem true. You’re in a stage of your career where you are bombarded with opportunities without you even trying. When you graduate, that all ends. People won’t go out of their way to help you like professors will. No one trusts you, unless you have a relationship.

Your Action Step:

Make it your objective to meet one new person a week. May sound hard, but introducing yourself to one person in your school would take you five minutes. If you don’t have five minutes to do this, then you shouldn’t be reading this blog.

Your pharmacy experience determines what jobs you can apply to

If I changed the subtitle, it would be:

Your pharmacy experience determines what jobs you can successful apply to

You don’t need experience do to every pharmacy job. I’ve seen this over and over with coaching clients and hearsay stories.

However, experience predicts whether or not a pharmacist candidate will receive a job offer.

Once you begin looking for job openings, you’ll see under job requirements: Past experience required. And in recent times, you’ll find: “Residency required.”

I don’t implore all students to get a residency. You don’t need one to have a happy pharmacy career. I’ve written more on this here.

Experience determines where you can go with your career. The PharmD is just the ticket to entry. You’ll need career currency (experience) to pay to play.

The more currency you have, the more rides (jobs) you can play on.

Your college career is the foundation for all following job opportunities. Now is your time to create currency. That way, when it’s time for you to look for a job, you can easily spend your currency in areas you enjoy, and not pick for the bottom of the barrel.

Other Related Advice

Figure out your career path ASAP

You have four years (or three in a few cases) to learn pharmacy. One thing many schools do poorly is helping students pick a career path based on your unique ability, a topic I cover greatly in my (upcoming) book. You must figure out what you’re great at and how it can fit in the world of pharmacy.

Of the two situations below, which do you think a manager would choose for a compounding pharmacy job?

Four years of compounding pharmacy experience during pharmacy school


6 months of compounding pharmacy experience during pharmacy school?

Obvious answer. And yet, so few students quickly pick a pharmacy field.

Set a deadline for when you will choose a path. Don’t wait. Your future career depends on it.


Avoid inner city companies for easier competition

Yes, our market is saturated. You’re not to blame for this. The place where competition is highest is the inner city.

I hear too many stories from pharmacists who take inner city jobs with much less than the average salary (around $116,000 at the time of this publication). The best candidates receive the following information to persuade them to take the low offer,

“If you don’t take this job, then there are 35 others who will say yes.”

The corporations know that some pharmacists will take jobs for lower salary because it’s where they want to live.

On the other side, if you wish to stay in the city, be willing to do more than your competition. The only way you’ll stand out above your competition is by being a rockstar. Success isn’t guaranteed.


Avoid companies that betray their staff

There are pharmacies that offer jobs to new pharmacists, stating the job will be full time with benefits, but after they start the job, the company rescinds the offer and makes their job part time, thus losing benefits.


Companies offer part time jobs and say, “Eventually a full time position will open.” But they don’t tell you that 10 other part time pharmacists are waiting for the same job, and they have seniority over you.

Obviously, these are horrendous business practices. Companies betray our trust and should be reprimanded. But you and I can’t change the system.

That’s why you need to ask around. Rumors of this spread fast. Your best info source will be upper classmen or recent alumni.

Ask them about job offers, and if they know of great companies or ones to avoid. Even some of our industry’s top companies use aforementioned poor practices.


Become a professors best helper

No, don’t be a brown-noser.

Be a professor’s colleague.

Imagine yourself a partner with a professor. His/Her role is to train you to be an excellent pharmacist. Your role is to learn as much as you can in an active capacity. An active capacity means you find ways to practice your unique ability, thus gaining experience.

Professors are excellent resources for your network. They can help you find opportunities to build experience. Professors know many other pharmacists. Most are willing to share their networks and provide introductions.


Lastly, don’t be overwhelmed

Everything I shared can feel overwhelming. Realize that your career doesn’t happen overnight. It’s built one day at a time.

Set aside time once a week, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Use this time to build your career.

Update your resume

Beautify your LinkedIn page (or create one)

Email an old friend

Research associations or volunteer opportunities

Invite a pharmacist to coffee

Each small step you take in your career will build up over time. Much like a 401K investment, small weekly actions (deposits) will pay out big time.


Sharing is Caring

Creating Happy Pharmacists

If you really want to build the career and life that you’ve dreamed of, one where you are helping people and working in a field that you love, you need to do something different than what you’ve been doing.

Through coaching you can re-discover why you became a pharmacist and find your passion again.