Study looks at media portrayals of pharmacists
Pop quiz: name a famous portrayal of a pharmacist in a television series or in film?
It’s not easy. And chances are if one does to come to mind it’s probably someone used as a comic foil or behaving erratically (think Mr. Gower from “It’s a Wonderful Life”).
A research project underway at the South Carolina College of Pharmacy aims to expose negative stereotypes about the profession and educate Hollywood along the way about the significant role pharmacists play in today’s health care system.
“It sounds strange, but I do have a passion for this,” said pharmacy professor Brandon Bookstaver, who serves as vice chair of the college’s Department of Clinical Pharmacy & Outcomes. “I think it’s important for us to work to change some of the misperceptions about what we do.”
The project was born out of a conversation last year between Bookstaver and first year pharmacy student Amy Yanicak, who was looking for a novel student research topic. Part of the discussion was about why pharmacy—ranked as one of America’s most trusted professions--is rarely reflected accurately in the media, even in shows about health care workers.
Yanicak secured funding for the project from two grants, one from the Honors College Science Undergraduate Research Fellowships program and the other from the Magellan Scholar Program in the Office of Research. Bookstaver signed on as the faculty mentor for the project.
With the help of several student assistants and staff members, the Internet and a Netflix account, the team began an analysis of scores of fictional shows and movies where a pharmacist appears as a character, even if only for a few seconds. The goal is to catch as many references as possible over the past 35 years and classify the portrayals as positive, negative or neutral using a standard survey tool.
So far, the team has analyzed more than 200 portrayals in American films and TV shows ranging from "Two and Half Men" to "House M.D."
“Everybody’s had to sit through some pretty strange stuff. It’s been mostly dramas, thrillers and, for some reason, quite a few horror movies,” Yanicak said.
While the research won’t conclude until this summer, the preliminary results are not encouraging.
“Unfortunately, it’s very negative,” Bookstaver said. “Often, pharmacists are victims of crimes or perpetrators of crimes themselves. Even in a show like “ER,” they show up only once or twice, and when they do, they’re either making a mistake or appearing unprepared.”
Not all depictions have been bad. Yanicak’s personal favorite is “In Old California,” where John Wayne portrays a pharmacist who fights outlaws while saving a group of gold miners from typhoid fever. Unfortunately, it was filmed in 1941 so it fell outside the scope of the research.
While it may be tempting to shrug off the negative portrayals, Yanicak said she fears the absence of pharmacists as competent professionals could be harmful to future recruitment and building patient trust. That’s important because pharmacists are taking on more responsibilities as patient care delivery models evolve and issues like medication safety get more attention.
“I want to go into hospital pharmacy, and would hate for people to think that what see on TV is how it works in the real world,” Yanicak said.
The project is scheduled to wrap-up this summer, and the group will present the findings to the South Carolina Society of Health-System Pharmacy in the fall. The team also is sending letters to television and film writers identified through the research, asking them why they chose to depict pharmacists as they did.
“I’m not sure if we’ll get many responses, but maybe we’ll get them to at least think about pharmacy more,” Yanicak said.
The research team believes it had identified the vast majority of fictional pharmacist portrayals during the last 35 years. To pass along a tip to the research team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.