The national media and social media exploded a local story of a pharmacist refusing to fill an prescription for misoprostol for a woman carrying a dead fetus. It’s difficult to get the exact details of the whole process, which took place over several days, but I think some of the events are evident and worth discussion.
Let’s first be clear that we should not have this opportunity to discuss this specific situation. It should have been a private process involving prescriber, patient and pharmacist, as we expect for each prescription filled. This patient, however, chose to put her uncomfortable and personal experience on social media, Facebook, and from there it migrated to more traditional local and national media. OK, that is your choice. So now anybody who cares to voice an opinion is free to do so and I will take my turn.
The OB/GYN ordered an effective drug that would terminate this nonviable pregnancy. A miscarriage was inevitable and the drug would allow the patient’s medical team to control the process. The prescription was taken to a Walgreens where the pharmacist would not fill the prescription for reasons of strong personal beliefs. The patient attempted to explain the medical reason behind the prescription and the pharmacist was unyielding. Apparently there was significant back and forth discussion between the two with that patient’s 7-year-old child, other pharmacy staff, and other people standing in line listening.
This is where things go careening off the tracks. First, the pharmacist should have recognized the very personal nature of this exchange and taken the patient to a discrete location for a private consultation. Most pharmacies have a consultation room and if not can find a private space. Retail pharmacies prominently display a large HIPAA sign that explain patient privacy protections. The dilemma for retail pharmacies is that the area where patients pick up their prescriptions is not private. Oh, we may have a little plastic divider shield, but if you look at most retail pharmacies there is little barrier between the pharmacist and patient at the counter and the patients waiting in line to be next or even in the waiting area. Do patients in this situation implicitly give up their privacy rights simply by being there willingly? To me, this particular situation was handled poorly by the pharmacist and the patient, but the pharmacist, as the professional, failed to act professionally in respect to patient privacy. Yes, the patient chose to discuss the details in this setting and then further on social media. At the pharmacy counter, however, the pharmacy staff should realize the obligation for discretion and act upon it. I have asked hundreds of patients to join me in our consultation room or another private space to discuss sensitive issues. Most pharmacists I know would do the same.
The moral objection to filling a prescription is supported in most pharmacy organizations and each of them that I have seen advise the pharmacist to provide another means for the patient to acquire the medication. This did eventually happen and there is some disagreement as to why it took from Thursday to Saturday for the Rx to be filled and picked up. One side claims that there were other pharmacists in the pharmacy the day the Rx was first presented and they were not asked if they would fill the prescription, while others say that the pharmacist did transfer the Rx to another Walgreens that would fill the Rx and it was the patient that delayed picking it up. Some of the latter have claimed that on Friday the patient was too busy giving interviews to TV news outlets and playing the victim card. Perhaps there is some truth to both sides. I will let the Arizona State Board Of Pharmacy complete their investigation and trust they will come closer to the truth better than any individual possibly might.
Pharmacists are presented with medical dilemmas every day. I have refused to fill many prescriptions. Some of those have been fraudulent, some have been presented by obvious drug seekers using multiple doctors or other schemes, and others were instances where I considered the health and safety of the patient in jeopardy. I personally believe that is the scope of our practice. We should fill all legitimate prescriptions unless the physical or mental health or safety of the patient would be put at risk. I do not believe that we should be making religious or moral judgements when assessing the appropriateness of a particular drug for a particular patient.
This particular drug had been identified in the pharmacist’s mind as a drug used for inducing an abortion and therefore would not dispense it. Any other use of the drug was apparently disregarded. I believe we are scientists, not priests. There are plenty of opportunities for pharmacists to apply religious or moral judgment on patients based on the prescriptions that they ask us to fill. Is this birth control Rx for a 16-year-old appropriate? Is that too young for sex? Is it better to provide contraception rather than risk a future abortion if she is sexually active? Oh wait, those questions are moot because the patient is taking the medication to control disfiguring acne, or to lessen her disabling dysmenorrhea. Do you refuse to fill HIV drugs because you consider HIV the “gay plague” and God intends gay people to suffer the consequences of their “choice?” Is it right for a pharmacist to work in an establishment that sells tobacco, liquor and sex toys? Each of us must decide our own morality, and we are free to express our opinions, but we have no right to impose them on others.