Phil Cowley, owner of Cache Valley Pharmacy in North Logan, Utah, knew from a young age that he wanted to pursue medicine. His turn as a viral social media star? Well, that element of his career wasn’t something he’d anticipated.
Cowley’s initial plan was to become a doctor, though as he and his wife began digging, they found that doctors usually choose one specialty and that, in turn, limits how they interact with patients. Simultaneously, the couple found themselves picking up infertility drugs, initially being told the prescription was $87. After shopping around, they found the same drug for $40 at another pharmacy.
“I started talking to the pharmacist who sold it to us at a better price and he said, ‘When you’re a pharmacist, you have a lot more chance to do good with a lot more patients than you do when you’re a doctor. A doctor sees 80 patients, and you get to see 300. You can help anybody you want to,’” Cowley said. “So, that’s when I shifted over to jump into the pharmacy game, when I realized that pharmacists see everybody, not just a few.”
Phil’s Journey to Becoming a Pharmacist
In one of Cowley’s viral TikToks with more than two million views, Cowley breaks down the difference between a doctor and a pharmacist. He states that doctors diagnose: They go through your history, they check you out and they tell you, “This is what you’ve got,” Cowley states. Pharmacists, on the other hand, start under the assumption that you’ve already been diagnosed and work from there for the best solution.
“Doctors start at the beginning and work forward,” Cowley said. “I don’t really do it that way.”
Cowley said that many diagnoses often have myriad treatment options, and in that, it’s often his job to explore those options for the specific patient moving forward.
“By doing so, it gives you a perspective that works perfectly with the doctors, because the doctors are always pushing forward trying to figure out where to go with it,” Cowley said. “And you’re like, ‘Well, here are the options on the map. There aren’t any other options. So let’s see if we can find something that’s a little off that will fix it better.’ So, I really like it better that way.”
Cowley’s career as a pharmacist began in a chain store, which he immediately knew was a mismatch. He cited the high prices and “corporate America” atmosphere, which swiftly moved him to a hospital. While he said the drugs were more interesting, even the hospital had its own politics.
He was still in school at the time and eventually got to work in a locally owned, community pharmacy.
“It was such a different feeling because you had this freedom to talk to the patients, fulfill what they needed; you had more of a freedom with the physicians, and that’s where I found my niche, was being independent and not having other pressures come in,” Cowley said. “I didn’t want to just count by fives and fill the bottles like some people do. I really liked the fact that you had so many options, and you could go out there, you can talk about whatever you needed to and nobody was tying your hands.”
Cowley owns his own pharmacy, and he’s been an owner since the day he finished school – literally, the same day.
“The last final I took, I took it about 10 o’clock in the morning, got a 92 on it,” he said. “By 2 o’clock, I was signing a lease on a pharmacy and a loan for about a quarter-million dollars.”
Looking back at his experience owning the pharmacy for more than 20 years, Cowley affirmed that the specific position gives him the whole picture of a patient. He referenced a specific patient who’s come in ever since he opened, someone he sees out in their mutual communities, and cited a special connection that was never so easily fostered in a corporate setting.
Owning his own pharmacy wasn’t always easy, though, especially during the beginning days of COVID-19. Cowley said plainly, “2020 was a bad year for us.” The pharmacy’s previous location was inside of a hospital, with no foot traffic coming inside and no drive-up window. During this time, Cowley said he was having a bit of an identity crisis, “because there’s such a big part of what you do for 20 years that becomes who you are.”
Around the same time, he was approached to be part of a fitness video, and once he went to the gym to film, a new idea donned on him.
Phil’s My Pharmacist: Becoming a TikTok Sensation
“I thought to myself moving forward, ‘You’ve got a whole new generation. You’ve got your Gen Z-ers and your millennials, and really a lot of them have no clue what a pharmacist does, how they do it, but they’re getting to that point where they’re going to start needing more medications, taking care of mom and dad,’” Cowley said.
It was then that Cowley decided to switch strategies and embrace social media, though he didn’t want to sell Cache Valley Pharmacy; rather, he wanted to open up about the role of a pharmacist and spread helpful information for people to use regarding their own health and medicine.
And it was clearly something people wanted to see. He started the @philsmypharmacist Instagram in July 2021 and the @philsmypharmacist TikTok in October, and as of April 2022, he amassed 40.9k followers on Instagram and 865.8k followers on TikTok.
Cowley recalled the initial, rapid growth of his TikTok account, starting it on a Saturday and seeing 42,000 followers by Monday night. It was also then when he realized that going viral online often comes with its handful of haters.
After the initial surge, Cowley recalled seeing a number of negative comments, “I’ve never seen somebody just dislike me for no reason. They don’t even know me,” he said. One day, he was sitting in his truck in the garage, overwhelmed by the newfound eyes on his account and himself. His wife eventually found him, and they decided to truly look at all of the comments. After filtering through the “bad ones,” the couple were overwhelmed by a sea of positive feedback.
“It was so good,” Cowley said. “People were so happy to have something out there. […] I have a lot of people that are on lower income levels that have no access to care whatsoever. They were the first ones to speak up, saying, ‘I feel alone,’ especially the young moms, they feel like they don’t know who to talk to.”
It was then when Cowley realized that just a quick video can create good and spread across thousands of lives. He described it as a calling, something that helped him recognize that there are many more good people in the world, they are just often quieter.
“Now when somebody comes out decides to call me a charlatan or whatever, I don’t even care because the little mom in North Carolina’s messaging me back on Instagram telling me that her baby’s rash is finally cleared up and thank you for answering her message,” Cowley said. “I think [to] myself, ‘I don’t care if 50 people hate me if that mom is no longer feeling alone, because she has a support network.’”
Social Media Presence is Good for Business
While his videos are surely helping people, his online presence also helped his pharmacy: Cowley said Cache Valley Pharmacy was down 12 percent when he first started the accounts, and now they’re up 17 percent.
The social media accounts cover myriad topics: If it’s about medicine and potential treatments, he’s probably brought it up or at least discussed adjacent subjects.
People today collectively joke about how overwhelming and scary it is to Google symptoms, and Cowley agreed that seeking information online as an average person is often like “drinking from a fire hydrant.”
“The concept I’ve tried to keep in mind, and the thing that I think I do well, is I take a complex set of information, and I can put it into 90 seconds that becomes consumable,” Cowley said. “I don’t think it was consumable for people, and I think that’s why that need is there.”
He also said that the irony in it all is that “the fire hydrant doesn’t have to be a fire hydrant.”
Cowley elaborated, “It’s a lot simpler, and I think people are smart. There’s a lot of people in medicine that like to gate-keep information. I’m against that. I think that the more you teach people, the smarter they get.”
From his perspective, the vast majority of colleagues in his field seem to feel the same, though there are still a small group of nay-sayers that argue Cowley’s approach is overstepping.
“I like that fact that everybody is free thinking, like I’m okay with them thinking that we need to do it [a certain way], but the majority of people are like, ‘I’m glad somebody is finally showcasing the potential of what’s out there.’”
He also said that a large portion of his following are pharmacists and pharmacy techs, and he hopes that he can begin to set the example for others in the field to be more open and honest in the way they share information and talk about their profession.
“If I had anything that I could do with this presence, it would be to take the pharmacists and bring their position and what they have to offer to the world around them to a little higher plane a little bit more knowledge, have it be out there where people can hang on to it a little bit more.”
Alternative Medicine Versus Traditional
It’s also a time where the world of traditional medicine is being met by abundant conversations about the potential for alternative plant medicines. Many theorize whether or not cannabis will one day overtake the opiate market, or if psilocybin has the potential to replace SSRIs.
Cowley said he dislikes the idea of having “this or that,” instead looking to embrace a world where it’s all available and accessible, and patients can figure out their best strategy based on what works for them, with all options at their disposal.
“I think that you would see the integration of multiple products into our healthcare seamlessly, and if we didn’t have the War on Drugs, you would see now people’s health would be better,” Cowley said.
He used the example of a patient using opiates the first seven to 10 days after surgery, but instead of trying to use the opiates to continue to treat the pain cycle with the nociceptors, the treatment could move right away to a cannabis product. The same could go for mental health issues: Someone on huge doses of drugs like Lithium and Zyprexa could try psilocybin treatments to see whether or not they need to be on either, or both medications, and at those same doses.
“I think that in the long run, that’s where we need to move to, rather than being at odds with each other saying, ‘Well, let the people on the ends be at odds with each other. All of us in the middle, come together.’ And I think you’d have the best healthcare ever.”
Cowley said he doesn’t believe pharmacists will exist the way they do now for much longer. Pharmacists will need to adapt, he said, and part of that is embracing the true value in their profession and how it distinctly aids people in their health journeys.
Cowley also said the lessons he’s learned with his newly found viral fame can branch out to anyone:
“I think that you look at what you put in the world and know that’s going to be your legacy. And it doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing,” Cowley said. “It’s what you put out there that makes you feel the way you do inside; it’s got nothing to do with anybody else.”