There are lots of things in this world that are sacred and sacrosanct. What a person tells his priest in the confessional isn’t to be shared with anyone. A lawyer-client relationship can never be violated. And doctor-patient communication should always be completely confidential.

But in the pharmacy people are expected to discuss some of their most personal and private health issues in one of the most public of places.

Hemorrhoids, vaginal discharge, constipation, jock itch, body odor, lice, and incontinence are just a few of the delicate problems people try to solve in the pharmacy. Of all the sensitive topics discussed at the counter within earshot of other shoppers, contraception and sex are among the most embarrassing. We have received dozens of messages from readers of this column about discomfort in the drug store.

One decades-old joke that circulates among pharmacists involves a young man beginning to get serious about the girl he is dating. Back then, condoms were kept behind the counter and the pharmacist had to be asked to dispense them. This fellow stocked up, just in case things would go as smoothly as he might hope on the next date.

He and his girl had dinner with her parents before departing for the evening. He was asked to give the blessing, and he went on and on, with the food getting cold. As they drove away, the girl remarked, “I didn’t know you were so religious.” The young man replied, “I didn’t know your daddy was a pharmacist.”

No doubt this story was funny because it had the ring of truth, or at least of real possibility.

Here are some stories from old timers who remember when condoms could only be purchased from behind the behind the pharmacy counter:

“My ex brother-in-law was good with a sling shot and practiced a lot. A metal sling shot made by Wham-O gave him many hours of practice until the rubber sling finally gave out.

“He returned to the drugstore where he had purchased it but the only person available to help him was the young girl at the pharmacy counter. He informed her he needed a rubber for his Wham-O. She had evidently never heard of a sling shot called Wham-O, as she turned bright red and suddenly turned to some urgent business in the back of the store, leaving him standing there.”

Another senior citizen offered this recollection:

“When I was a sailor boy in 1944 we were taught to be modest and prudent and discreet. So as I entered the little local drugstore to purchase a package of condoms I asked the young lady behind the counter in a quiet voice for a package of prophylactics please.

“She opened a drawer under the counter, removed a package and slipped it in a bag. I paid her and left for my destination. At the proper time I reached in my pea-coat pocket, opened the sack and discovered she had sold me a packet of laxatives. I could have wrung her neck!”

Although it is no longer necessary to ask the pharmacist personally for condoms, there are other things to blush over. One mother confessed that after unsuccessfully searching up and down the aisles for lice shampoo she finally screwed up her courage and quietly asked the clerk behind the counter where the lice products were located. He must have been a new employee, because in a loud voice he asked a pharmacy tech where to find the lice shampoo. The mom was mortified.

Not all pharmacy chains have recognized the need for privacy and set aside space for confidential consultations. Pharmacists are often so busy that they seem remote and hard to reach. That’s why “techs” have become the front line in most pharmacies. Our concern about privacy in the pharmacy really aggravated this person, though:

“I am totally offended by your column about druggists and clerks. As a clerk I work six days a week for minimum wage. We average 300 customers a day and I am exhausted an hour after I start. But anyone can come into the pharmacy and ask me or the pharmacist a question without embarrassment.

“I have helped men with shopping lists buy douches, Maxipads, and lubricants safe for condoms. At least once a week a man needs help finding Gyne-Lotrimin or Monistat 7 for vaginal yeast infections. I’ve helped parents with lice shampoo and pinworm medicine, people who needed hemorrhoid preparations, and both males and females looking to treat crab lice. I have heard enough about bowel movements to make you scream.

“I am totally professional in my job, and my customers usually leave my counter smiling and glad I was able to help.”

We have no doubt that many clerks and technicians are very professional and helpful when dealing with sensitive health concerns. That said, we still do not think people should have to inquire about treatments for pubic lice, vaginal infections or even hemorrhoids in such a public space.

Patients may not need the privacy of a confession booth when talking to a pharmacist, but some confidentiality would be appreciated, especially when discussing personal health matters. Many people are uncomfortable sharing intimate details in a public setting.

If you have a story to tell please share it below in the comment section. We are also interested in hearing from pharmacists or pharmacy technicians. Share your own embarrassing moments in the drug store below in the comment section.

 

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  1. Lori E.
    USA
    Reply

    Announcing your private information seems to be a regular habit among these “confidential” health workers. Most of them have to idea what privacy and dignity is or what confidentiality means.

    I have gone to a pharmacy to get birth control pills and had the pharmacist give un-solicited advice to me about it loud enough for anyone nearby to overhear. I have also had a pharmacist who called the doctor on a phone (which was on the counter where the public could overhear) and announced my full name and that my med was to be “applied vaginally.” It was weird but I knew what she was up to before she ever got on the phone. I got a creepy feeling from her. The thing that really kills me is that rule of standing back four feet. Most people can overhear things from that distance.

  2. ob
    Reply

    At the pharmacy we use, Harris Teeter, there is a sign requesting that each person in line, stand back at least four feet from the one at the counter, to give some privacy.

  3. J.T.
    Reply

    I remember when my son was three, and I was trying to get him settled for bed. His twin sister was already tucked in her own bed. As I put him into his, he exclaimed: “Dadddy, I need chopstick, I need chopstick.” I was perplexed. “Chopstick?” So I asked him again, “you want chopsticks?” To which he replied: “no, I need chopstick.” Around and around we went. I got increasing frustrated to the point that I began to raise my voice. CHOPSTICKS? YOU WANT CHOPSTICKS? As tears began to fall from his face, his sister said “no Daddy, he wants his “CHAPSTICK! He wants CHAPSTICK!!!
    I scraped myself off of the floor, and slipped out of the room. I still feel the guit six years later. A lesson painfully learned by this stay-at-home dad.

  4. GM
    Reply

    The second GI doc I visited for rectal bleed prescribed a medicine she suggested would need to be compounded. I took it to my local compounding pharmacy in our small town and a young lady behind the counter took the prescription into a side room and returned to announce rather loudly, ” We don’t have that. He suggests the only local pharmacy to have “Rectal Rocket” available is one in (an adjoining town).”
    A week later I screwed up my courage to try the new pharmacy. It was a Saturday, store full of people waiting. This time I handed it directly to the pharmacist, silently praying “please don’t, please don’t, please don’t.” He looked at the script, puzzled for a moment, then, “Hmmm. Rectal rocket, huh?” So much for privacy.

  5. JJ
    Reply

    When I was 16 I asked the old owner of the pharmacy in Madison, Wisconsin for “rubbers.” Very loudly he said “Rubbers? What are rubbers?” I then quietly asked for prophylactics, and he grudgingly sold them to me.

  6. SMH
    Reply

    Another area that should be confidential is when they ask for personal information such as your date of birth, etc. in a loud voice for all to hear. In this day when fraud and theft of information is so prevalent, if you do not give them the information out loud for all to hear, you cannot make your purchase. If you show then your driver’s license with the date on it they read it out loud. The person at the register has no concept of confidentiality when you pay for your purchase and becomes offended when you want to keep this private between the two of you and will loudly state your information for all to hear. This has happened to me repeatedly in Target.

  7. cpmt
    Reply

    This reminds me of a funny story my daughter told me recently. A friend of hers from Brazil was taking ‘special’ courses in the same university. He was embarrassed to ask the pharmacist for some medication to remove his earwax, so he decided to get it from the internet.
    He went back to the dorm and put some in his ear, after a few hours he didn’t understand why it wasn’t working and why he had so much discomfort. he went to ask my daughter to find out what to do; it was really bathering him.
    When my daughter read the instructions on the bottom of the page it said “if any problems go to the nearest vet.”
    Well, after everyone laugh for long time, she accompanied him to the nearest pharmacy and got the correct medication.

  8. HJagow
    Reply

    This did not happen in a pharmacy, but speaks to the fact that semantics can be an issue. In the 80’s I worked for a man recently transferred from Australia, where pink erasers are called rubbers. One day he showed me an eraser that was worn out so I looked in the supply cabinet and none were there. You can imagine the office manager’s face when he asked her why there were no rubbers in the office supply cabinet!

  9. Mark
    Reply

    Add “gas” to the top of the list of embarrassing symptoms that customers routinely ask pharmacists for advice on treating.

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