Pharmacy owner Olivier Picard hopes these times of hardship will help community pharmacy get the recognition it has always deserved, but never had
The last few weeks have been exhausting as community pharmacies like mine have been under enormous pressure as they step up to keep Britain healthy in the face of coronavirus.
Pharmacies are on the frontline of the national effort to limit the impact of coronavirus and keep people well. Over four weeks of unprecedented workload, early starts, late finishes, drug price rises, lack of PPE – and the abuse that pharmacy teams have received – has led to the profession being on their knees, suffering mental health issues and physical exhaustion.
The experience of the last few months surely shows that pharmacies are indispensable – both to patients and to the NHS. While providing vital frontline support, we are also absorbing pressure that would otherwise fall on other parts of the system.
Since GPs have taken much of their service onto a remote footing, pharmacies are now the focus for face-to-face care in the community and have become the visible face of the NHS on the high street and within communities.
I fear we have simply been abandoned on the NHS frontline, with no PPE and little to no recognition from the powers that be, while remaining the only accessible primary care provider opened to the public.
‘The crisis has shone a light on several structural, long-term issues‘
The crisis has shone a light on several structural, long-term issues for community pharmacy, even as the focus is rightly on the immediate needs of the sector and its patients.
One of those structural issues – an elephant in the room – is the chronic underfunding of community pharmacy. Any future funding calculations need to weigh pharmacy’s part in the resilience of the healthcare system and the capacity to manage future public health emergencies.
Another long-standing issue is medicines shortages, and the resilience and transparency of the supply chain. As pharmacies strain to meet the nation’s medicines needs, often at a loss, I welcome organisations like the NPA working in partnership with buying groups and wholesalers, to ease the pressure on community pharmacies. I hope that a spirit of patient-centred cooperation across the supply chain becomes embedded and lasts long after of the Covid-19 crisis has passed.
Finally receiving national media attention
A third area is the perception of pharmacy amongst the political class and the national media. Over the years, it has been a struggle to get pharmacy ‘noticed’ as a vital part of the NHS and to have pharmacists portrayed as health care professionals rather than principally retailers. I have been on numerous radio interviews with BBC and LBC as well as in the news on BBC and ITV highlighting the unprecedented pressure community pharmacists have been under. This media work has been done outside of working hours, at the detriment to my family life, so that people continue to hear about the valuable work of pharmacy teams on the health service frontline.
It will also be important to build on the renewed interest of senior politicians, noting that even the Prime Minister has singled out pharmacies for praise.
Independent pharmacies are particularly vulnerable, as many were already in financial deficit before the crisis began. We had already seen pharmacies starting to close in recent months but now, not hundreds but thousands of pharmacies could become non-viable, putting medicine provision in jeopardy in many areas of the UK and putting increased strain on GPs and hospitals as a result. The stepping up from the profession over Easter opening and delivery to the most vulnerable patients, without questioning or funding, has shown that the government needs a strong and healthy network of pharmacies, now more than ever.
‘The crucial work of pharmacy teams during the crisis must be recognised‘
Every time I prepare for work, without a second thought, I put myself at risk, particularly while working in small premises where maintaining social distancing is difficult. After the NHS reluctantly sent PPE to pharmacists and their teams, the ability to replenish stock has all but vanished as the NHS doesn’t have any further provision for pharmacists and wholesalers appear to have no stock either. Eventually, stock will be made available via wholesalers, but this is stock that we will have to pay for, which is rather unbelievable bearing in mind the risks we take while staying open.
While most patients have embraced and appreciated the work of their local pharmacists, there has been a significant increase in abuse of pharmacy staff. From patients complaining that waiting time has increased to commenting on the measures introduced in the pharmacies (i.e. limiting entry in the pharmacies to two or three patients at the time), and of course there is the physical and verbal assault from people coughing in front of staff without an ounce of worry or appreciation.
But there will come a time – let us hope soon – when the current situation is under control and people’s thoughts can turn to the future. When that time comes, the crucial work of pharmacy teams during the crisis must be recognised in a meaningful way, by the NHS, the government and other stakeholders who can either help or hinder our sector.
We will remind them that, in the country’s hour of need, pharmacy teams stepped up, did their duty, and saved lives.