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Computerized pharmacies dispense consumer confidence.

'Winning the confidence of a food shopper is vital to success," says Morris Bortnick. "Winning the confidence of a pharmacy customer is even more vital."

Bortnick, vice president of professional services at Giant Food, says, "When people are taking medicines, they couldn't be more safety conscious. That's why our computerized prescription systems are such a hit with customers. They spot potentially harmful effects that come when people unknowingly mix medications."

Stressing that the system is both a tool and a safeguard for pharmacists--who have had to learn a lot about newer, stronger medications that have entered the market in the past 15 years--Bortnick says, "Just reading about these new drugs is not enough. The computer helps because it lists the drugs and the severity of their possible interactions with other medications."

Bortnick, a pharmacist himself, adds, "We have never had this kind of tool available before. There's no doubt this will raise the level of prescription care."

with the system, pharmacists no longer have to hand prepare the necessary, but time-consuming insurance reimbursement claims, and claims rejected for errors have almost been eliminated. And Giant now receives its payments in half the time it took before. That gives the pharmacists more free time to spend with customers, answering questions, giving advice and generally adding to the personal touch.

"But that isn't all, adds Bortnick enthusiastically. "Customers get itemized receipts that help them with insurance claims and income tax deductions. And the stores get improved, detailed recaps of sales and inventory status."

Currently installed in two-thirds of Giant's 75 combination stores equipped with pharmacies, the systems are slated for chainwide installation by mid-summer.

Tests were conducted for two years before IBM hardware and software were selected. The IBM Series 1 computer--with model 4978 display terminal and two model 4975 printers (to keep up with the volume)--costs a whopping $60,000 (or more) per store. However, Bortnick is quick to add, "We could have spent about $25,000 each for what we needed in a pharmacy but these Series 1 units are geared for use around the store in a variety of tasks, included communications, time and attendance tracking, energy control and other applications. Their pharmacy capabilities are only a beginning."

Although the basic data base stems from the American Pharmaceutical Association's Med-Com system, Giant's own people were involved in modifying the software. Training is entirely company originated. One pharmacist oversees a team of trainers who have individual pharmacies "on their own" in four to six weeks' time, including the time-consuming task of loading the computer memory with the voluminous consumer profiles. How It Works

Giant's prescription system is based on confidential forms customers fill out on themselves and their families. The object of the form is to enable the pharmacy to keep updated records of the family's prescriptions, to maintain prescriptions records for insurance and tax purposes, to advise the customer of known problems with existing allergies and to provide immediate warning of potential drug interactions from one or more prescriptions. The customer can also list a preference for easy-open or safety closure tops on medicines and for generic or brand name drugs.

Explains Bortnick, "Say a doctor prescribes CIBA's Ser-ap-res, a control for high blood pressure. The computer's memory will check the medicine's three active ingredients--reserpine--against several thousand other chemical entities to check for possible hazardous interaction."

A severity action code numbered 1,3,5,7, or 9 will appear on the display screen. The first three numbers represent borderline potential for trouble; a "7" suggests that a call to the customers's physician is in order; and a "9" is a "must call" action code. Usually, the telephone conference with the doctor results in a modification of the prescription, possibly a smaller dose, but sometimes the medicine will be changed outright. The same procedure holds for drug ingredients which may aggravate a customer's allergies.

Bortnick stresses that the system is merely a tool. "We are not replacing the pharmacist's judgement. The final decision, on all but the '9' action code, rests with him. He's free to consult with a doctor on any question. Doctors, for their part, appreciate the double check the system offers to everyone concerned." Checking is usually prompt, since all pharmacies are open from 8:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. and are staffed with two phamacists and several trained technicians.

Have the systems saved any lives? Bortnick is reluctant to claim such a dramatic payoff. "Since customers tend to frequent more than one doctor, we have had a number of cases which required calls to verify the medications. There's no question that we have saved a number of customers from suffering reactions or overdoses that could have made them sick," he says.

The same holds for the systems' effect on business. "We get many good comments from customers and although the service has had a salutary effect, we really can't say exactly how sales have benefited," says Bortnick. Dial an Answer

One reason is that an even newer service is also winning friends for Giant pharmacies. A free call-in service enables customers to listen to more than 200 tape-recorded messages on health and medical concerns. "It's brand new," explains Bortnick, "so we don't have a feel yet for its contribution. I can tell you that we get several thousand calls a day, however, which attests to the service's popularity."

Called Tel-Med, the recordings provide information on everything from alcohol problems through venereal disease. Customers dial a number--there is one each for the Washington and Baltimore areas--and requests a tape. A Giant operator, working with a library of tapes, will play the requested recording, which usually runs about three minutes.

Operators are on duty from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. Callers may dial as many times a day as they wish to hear a new tape or to listen to the same tape again. Should a tape be in use at the time of the call, the operator suggests that the caller listen to an alternate or call back later. Free brochures listing each tape's contents--conveniently grouped into 29 areas of concern--are available at all Giant pharmacies.

As the brochures explain, the Tel-Med tapes are not designed to "replace your doctor or dentist...diagnose your illness...or serve as emergency treatment. Suspected health problems and questions about a medical condition should be discussed with your doctor."

Says Bortnick, "I've listened to every one of these tapes. The information they contain is precise, accurate and easy to understand. They have been approved by the Maryland State Medical Society, too. I defy anyone to pick up our brochure and not get the irrestible urge to listen to one or more tapes.

"Knowing more about health problems and being able to recognize early signs of illness can contribute to our customers' ability to remain healthy. And it goes without saying that the good will generated by this service can contribute to our pharmacies' financial well-being." Give 'Em a Choice

If Giant customers would like to substitute generic drugs for the more expensive brand name products--a question asked on the original customer forms--Giant is also ready to help.

Every Giant pharmacist knows he can substitute a generic for a name brand with complete confidence.

"For the past decade we have operated the finest drug testing facility in the industry," says Bortnick. At Giant's Landover, Md., headquarters he oversees a staff that includes three chemists, a microbiologist and several technicians. Armed with a spectrophotometer, a liquid and gas chromophotographic analyzer, eletronic scales of exquisite accuracy and other instruments, Giant routinely tests all drugs for purity and quality. "Many retailers will stock hundreds of private label over-the-counter drug items," he says, " but the truth, is, there is a paucity of manufacturers who can match the quality of the name brands. We carry only about 80 items, because at Giant we don't just pay lip service to the concept that quality and safety are paramount. We practice what we preach. At Giant we all sleep easy at night."

So too does management. Figures are not available, but it is no secret that Giant's pharmacies generate exceptionally healthy sales and profits. Says a competitor, "Nobody around this part of the country comes close to their all-around expertise
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Title Annotation:Giant Food's
Author:O'Neill, Robert E.
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:May 1, 1984
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