In the pharmaceutical business, trust is paramount. Convincing customers to ingest therapeutic chemicals relies on them having faith in your ability to dole them out correctly. So the bosses of Boots (now a part of transatlantic behemoth Walgreens Boots Alliance) won’t be pleased to see the ethics of their pharmacy practices being called into question today.
An investigation by The Guardian charts the changes that have occurred in the high street stalwart since its 2006 merger with Alliance Unichem and private equity-backed delisting from the stock exchange the following year. The story plays into the stereotypical depiction of PE buyouts, where businesses are loaded with debt and expected to maximise short-term financial performance at the expense of long-term sustainability.
Particularly alarming is Boots’s apparent treatment of its pharmacies. As they never tire of telling people, pharmacists aren’t simply retailers of medicine – it’s a proper profession that requires four years of study and thorough knowledge of how drugs affect the body. So it’s understandable that they would be uncomfortable with being asked to hit sales targets to help the company maximise its revenues, as the investigation claims.
A survey by the Pharmacists Defence Association, a trade union of sorts, found that 60% of its members who worked for Boots agreed that ‘commercial incentives or targets have compromised the health, safety or wellbeing of patients and the public, or the professional judgment of staff’, compared with 52% of other members. Three quarters (76%) said ‘financial cutbacks imposed by your main employer have directly impacted upon patient safety’ half, most of or ‘all the time.’
What makes the allegations particularly controversial is that Boots generates around 40% of its revenues from the NHS, that emotive institution that Britons hold so dear. The investigation was especially critical of Boots for its use of so-called ‘medicine-use-reviews’, medical check-ups that the national health pays the company £28 a pop to carry out. Each pharmacy is limited to 400 of these, but apparently pharmacists are expected to treat that figures as a target rather than a cap, a practice that the Graun says could net Boots as much as £30m per year. ‘We make it clear to our colleagues that these services should not be undertaken inappropriately,’ Boots responded, but that’s not always enough.
Boots has since merged with US chemist giant Walgreens but Stefano Pessina, the Monaco-based Italian magnate who brokered the 2006 deal (and is now ranked among the world’s 100 wealthiest people), remains the largest individual shareholder in the newly-merged company.
While all businesses need to make money and even not-for-profit health organisations need to be commercially viable, allegations that Boots is putting profit ahead of customer care could really harm the company's reputation. But given it remains one of the main dispensers of NHS prescriptions, consumers don't have many other options.
A Boots spokesperson responds:
'We don’t recognise the claims in today’s press which are not representative of the 60,000 colleagues who work for Boots UK and our commitment to developing healthcare further. The health and wellbeing of all our colleagues is, and always has been, a priority for the business.
'Offering the best care to patients is at the heart of everything we do and this includes offering pharmacy services that are relevant to the changing needs of patients and healthcare systems. Our pharmacists are empowered to use their professional judgment to assess the appropriateness of a clinical service, and we make it clear to our colleagues that these services should not be undertaken inappropriately.'