Does Walgreens’ New Up-Close-And-Personal Pharmacy Approach Violate Privacy Laws?

Two examples of unattended Walgreens pharmacists' desks (source: Change to Win)

Two examples of unattended Walgreens pharmacists’ desks (source: Change to Win)

In an effort intended to provide pharmacy customers a less impersonal experience, some Walgreens stores have been redesigned to get pharmacists out in the store, consulting with customers at desks, without the traditional counter (and sometimes panes of bulletproof glass) between them. But the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services wants to see if this new “Well Experience” model is unintentionally revealing customers’ private medical information.

The HHS probe into the revamped Walgreens store is being done in response to a Sept. 2013 study by advocacy group Change to Win, which looked at 50 remodeled Walgreens stores Florida, Illinois, and Indiana.

That report from CtW, which has been critical of other Walgreens practices, claims that “In over 32 hours of observation, field researchers noted 442 individual
interruptions or distractions to pharmacists,” and more than one-third of these issues could be attributed directly to the new Well Experience model.

According to CtW, pharmacists were noticeably distracted by things that had nothing to do with their job, like small talk with customers, providing directions to the restrooms, and answering questions about products that were not related to healthcare. Additionally, the study expressed concern about the casual atmosphere encouraged by Well Experience, with children playing in the pharmacy waiting area and customers hovering over pharmacists’ desks.

“Research suggests that interruptions and distractions are related to increased medication errors,” reads the report.

Of particular concern from the CtW study are allegations that Walgreens pharmacists are leaving their desks unattended, meaning any passerby could have access to private medical information left behind by the pharmacist.

“While Walgreens’ descriptions of the Well Experience model to state boards of pharmacy indicate that the desk will be attended by the pharmacist at nearly all
times, pharmacists were frequently observed to leave the desk for a variety of reasons,” reads the report. “Among the types of paper information unattended were doctors’ prescriptions; completed health test authorization forms including patient medical history or test results; and patient call lists, listing patient names, telephone phone numbers, and prescribed drugs.”

According to the initial CtW study, 80% of the stores visited by investigators found desks left unattended with sensitive information either on or near the desktop.

In some stores, pharmacists were leaving discarded patient information in unattended trash cans that anyone in the store had access to. Likewise, a number of pharmacists left their desks unattended while their computer monitors still displayed sensitive customer info.

CtW recently took another look at Well Experience stores and still found alleged potential privacy breaches at 73% of stores it visited, with 46% of visited Walgreens leaving patients’ prescriptions out where they could be seen or accessed.

Walgreens has already remodeled 600 of its 8,200 stores to fit the Well Experience model.

If the HHS investigation comes down on the side of Walgreens, it will likely not have to make any changes to Well Experience stores. However, if HHS determines that there is a problem, it could compel the drugstore chain to make changes to policy and/or store design to minimize privacy concerns.

While Walgreens maintains that its Well Experience stores are in line with state requirements, the format has so far been rejected by three states: Maryland, Hawaii, and Connecticut. CtW filed a complaint this week with the Florida Dept. of Health, alleging that the company is violating state law by removing pharmacists from the pharmacy and leaving pharmacy techs to fill prescriptions.

A rep for the chain, which has previously shrugged off criticism from CtW because the group is backed by labor unions, tells the Wall Street Journal that the company believes “the matter will be resolved without action.”