Hospital Pharmacists: Unseen at Your Bedside

With hundreds of patients, all needing different medications, they have to be fast—and accurate.

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Like vital moving parts inside an engine, cadres of unseen pharmacists are critical to the care of hospitalized patients. The range and complexity of medications that hospital pharmacists count and concoct make a retail pharmacist's job look easy by comparison.

The central pharmacy in a typical hospital is aswarm with pharmacists and their assistants busy measuring, counting, and checking. One patient needs an IV bag with a particular mix of anesthesia drugs for surgery. Another gets an assortment of pills and capsules, separated by specific times they must be taken. Countless bags of Ringer's solution, a blend of water and electrolytes that is dripped into patients to restore their fluid balance, are zipped to patient units across the hospital.

Going public. Pharmacists at some hospitals, among them Sentara Heart Hospital in Norfolk, Va., have emerged from the shadows to work directly in the units. Over the course of the day, the unit pharmacist reviews every medication sent from the central pharmacy and enters new physician orders into an electronic ordering system. He can check on possible drug interactions and conflicts between a patient's new lab results and her drug regimen, because unlike those who staff the central pharmacy, he has access to each patient's chart.

This story was originally reported on 7/15/07.