Calk one up for the little guy. Consumer Reports’ latest drugstore study affirms that the top-rated walk-in stores are neighborhood independents, not giant chains such as Walgreens and CVS.

Of CR readers who shopped at independent drugstores and participated in the survey, the vast majority were highly satisfied with their experiences. Included in the “independent” group were The Medicine Shoppe and Health Mart, chains that are individually owned and operated. Independents made fewer errors, offered swifter service and were much more likely to have medications ready for pickup when promised than traditional chain, supermarket and big-box-store pharmacies, the survey found.

People who filled their prescriptions at independent stores also praised the pharmacists’ accessibility and personal service, and encountered fewer delays and medication mix-ups than those who shopped elsewhere.

These findings are based on the responses of more than 40,000 Consumer Reports readers; while that’s a large number, the respondents were not selected at random and therefore their views are not necessarily representative of all consumers.

One of the most disturbing findings is that so few people are talking to their druggists about dosing, interactions or medical conditions. Less than half the respondents had a conversation with their pharmacist about their prescription drugs; only a small number discussed over-the-counter medicines.

If you’re seeking answers on the Internet rather than from a health-care professional, you’re “swimming in shark-infested waters,” warns physician John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. “Brand drugmakers have so much money and are so smart that it is very difficult to find information online that they do not influence heavily,” he says. “In my mind, unless you are very careful and already well informed, you should assume that whatever you read on the Internet is coming from a drug company.”

Other results:

- Problems are common. Almost half the readers participating in the survey had at least one problem during a total of about 54,000 drugstore visits. Top gripes: Medicine was out of stock, counter service was slow and the order wasn’t ready when promised.

- On-time delivery improves. Overall, drugstores have gotten better at delivering prescriptions when promised. That’s especially good news because nearly half the respondents said the ability to get in and out quickly with medicine in hand was an important consideration in choosing a drugstore, compared with a much smaller number in the survey Consumer Reports conducted in 2002.

- It pays to shop around. If you have large out-of-pocket costs, it’s wise to do some comparison shopping. That might require phone calls, because many chains (Costco is an exception) have removed their online price-checker feature.

- Discounts and freebies are available. Some stores offer free diabetes drugs and 14-day supplies of certain generic antibiotics, along with low-priced generic prescription drugs (for example, a 30-day supply for $4 or three months’ worth for about $10) and discounted immunizations for flu, measles, chickenpox, tetanus, pneumonia, hepatitis, HPV and other conditions. (Pharmacists in all 50 states are now permitted to inoculate.)

Many chains, including CVS, Walgreens and Wal-Mart, have walk-in clinics offering services such as inexpensive physicals for school sports, pregnancy tests and treatment for ailments such as bladder infections, poison ivy and pinkeye.

- The Internet can be hazardous. Though there are credible online pharmacies, such as those affiliated with physical stores (, for example), most are shady. That’s the conclusion of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which accredits online drugstores. Of the more than 7,000 online drugstores whose practices the NABP has reviewed, only about 3.5 percent appear to be legitimate. The rest sell foreign or non-FDA-approved drugs, don’t require a valid prescription, lack a physical address or otherwise fail to meet the NABP’s standards.

“We still have big concerns about rogue sites,” says Ilisa Bernstein, a deputy director in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Roughly 36 million Americans have bought medications online without a valid prescription.

- E-prescribing isn’t used enough. With almost 4 billion prescriptions dispensed annually, there’s ample opportunity for wrong dosing instructions, missed drug interactions, patient allergies and errors due to illegible handwriting. If more doctors sent prescriptions electronically to drugstore computer systems, which have access to patients’ medical histories, the error rate would drop and doctors would spend less time clearing up confusion.

Copyright 2011. Consumers Union of United States Inc.