In one of my last posts I talked about ways that pharmacies can reduce their environmental footprint and why they should do so. While researching ideas for the piece, I came across St. Louis Hills Pharmacy, which has actually implemented compostable prescription vials in their store. In addition, they have an entire page of their website dedicated to the numerous actions they are taking to protect the environment. I thought it was pretty cool (and not something I had seen many independent pharmacies do), so I emailed the pharmacy.
I was fortunate enough to have the owner, Tyler Taylor, PharmD, respond and let me interview him about his experience with compostable vials!
1. Why did you decide to switch to compostable prescription vials?
My wife and I have been trying to reduce our environmental impact by recycling, composting, and reducing plastic waste. I saw that there were some biodegradable vials available so I decided to look into it. Pharmacy waste is high so I wanted to try and limit what waste we produce. The ones I use may or may not be truly compostable. I couldn’t get a good answer from the composting company that I use. They do break down in a prokinetic environment much faster than your typical plastic vial. I wanted to switch to reusable glass vials but the requirements by the Board of Pharmacy exceed realistic expectations.
[PC] That's interesting about needing to validate it with the composting company. It brings up another good point you bring up on your website about the differences between 'compostable' and 'biodegradable': biodegradable materials may still take much more time to break down than compostable products. This article gives an excellent overview of the differences between the two.
2. Was there an increase in cost compared to traditional vials?
It was a lot more expensive when we first switched. The typical amber vials are produced overseas and were much cheaper. Over the last few years, the current administration has raised tariffs so the imported vials are about the same price as the biodegradable vials.
[PC] With declining reimbursement and thin margins cost is definitely an issue for most pharmacies. I remember pricing them out for our pharmacy once and they were definitely more expensive than the cheapest standard prescription vials but also cheaper than the most expensive ones available through our distributor (kind of a 'mid-line' vial, for lack of better terms).
For any pharmacist interested in switching, iBottles and Pharmacy Lite are two companies in the business. There are probably many others, so perhaps some price comparisons would help those who are interested.
From a policy standpoint, this would be a good place to give pharmacies a tax credit for implementing an environmentally-friendly product, similar to the credits you might get as an individual for buying an electric car or solar panels.
3. What reaction did you receive from patients and did you see any increase in volumes from making the switch?
I had hoped to get some positive responses from the switch but haven’t noticed any. A few patients asked about the color change (amber to blue) but that’s about it. It could be a lack of promotion on my part. I had looked at trying to be involved in some environmental fair or something of that to reach more people interested in environmental issues. I did the typical website and facebook postings but that’s about it.
[PC] Yeah maybe promotion really is one of the keys to success with these vials. It might also be somewhat difficult to measure how many patients transferred specifically because of the vials, but it could be a good general promotional tool. The environmental fair sounds like a great idea.
To get the ideas flowing, here are some places I can think of that the LOHAS market loves to frequent:
Natural food stores: many have bulletin boards and might let you put your business cards or brochures on the counter.
Coffee shops and cafes: same as natural food stores.
Farmer's markets and craft fairs: maybe an outgoing, personable pharmacy technician could go once per month for a while and bring prescription transfer sheets? Once they 'sign up' the patient for your pharmacy, they could bring the sheets back so the pharmacist could transfer all the prescriptions and follow up with the patient. Lots of other business do this at farmer's markets, so we might as well too. The good thing is that you could easily track how much additional business you're getting from going to the events.
Companies selling solar panels or other environmental products: You could probably bring in a brochure and offer a $10 gift card for front-end merchandise or something to someone who purchases the solar panels to get them in the store.
Naturopaths, chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, etc: The LOHAS market is, overall, interested in alternative medicine. Many of these places would be willing to let you advertise when they find out what you're doing. You could do the same as with a solar panels - first-time acupuncture patients get a $10 gift card to your pharmacy, for example. That helps your business and the other person's business, so that probably won't take much convincing.
4. Any other benefits you’ve seen from switching to these vials?
From a simplicity stand point it helps. All the vials are the same cap size and can be used for liquids. I don’t have to worry about having 5 different lids and stocking ovals. It gets delivered next day so I don’t have a long delay or need to do large ordering.
[PC] Yeah that's pretty cool. I wish even the standard plastic vials would switch to a design like that so we don't need to have bunches of different drawers for caps. I hate it too when someone accidentally pours the wrong-size cap in the drawer and we're stuck sorting them out.
5. Do you have any advice for pharmacies looking into making the switch?
I suggest other pharmacies look into doing it. It may cost a little bit more but I think the long term outcomes are worth it. Try and market better than I did. I know there is a demographic that is interested in being more eco-friendly.
[PC] You've got a good start with your marketing! You have an entire page for your customers talking about all the things you have implemented in your store. Hopefully some of the ideas in the post will help you take that to the next level and start bringing in the transfers so you can see a financial return on investment as well.