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Study: Patient Data at Risk in Walgreens’ New Pharmacy Setup

September 25, 2013
by Rajiv Leventhal
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A redesigned pharmacy setup at Walgreens could result in widespread violations of patient privacy, according to a study by the labor union-funded group, Change to Win Retail Initiatives.

As pharmacies rapidly expand their healthcare services, America’s largest drug chain, Walgreens, is beginning to remove pharmacists from their traditional work area and placing them at a desk “out in front” of the counter. The stated purpose of the model, branded “Well Experience,” is to make pharmacists more accessible to patients and broaden the focus of the pharmacy by expanding services Walgreens can offer in its drug stores, such as vaccinations and acute and primary care.

Change to Win Retail Initiatives investigated Well Experience pharmacies in Illinois, Indiana and Florida—three of the largest markets for the new model—in June, July and August 2013, and found that patient information was left unattended and visible to anyone in the pharmacy at 80 percent of stores visited. This included sensitive information about patients’ prescriptions and medical histories, which pharmacies are required under federal law to protect.

Additionally, over the course of 32 hours of observation, field researchers noted 442 individual interruptions or distractions to pharmacists, and more than a third of these were specific to the pharmacist’s new location in the Well Experience model. Research suggests that interruptions and distractions are related to increased medication errors.

And in 46 percent of stores visited, prescription medication was left unattended on or near the pharmacists’ desks, within the reach of customers in the pharmacy waiting area. Insufficiently secured prescription drugs were frequently bottled and labeled for patients and included leaflets containing private health information.

Based on the study’s findings, Change to Win Retail Initiatives filed a complaint alleging numerous breaches of the Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

Walgreens officials have yet to respond to a request for comment.

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