Blog: Covid-19 – what are the lessons to be learnt? A view from community pharmacy

As we enter 2021, the joint Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee continue to reflect on the health sector’s handling of the pandemic. Forefront are the questions, ‘could more have been done?’ and ‘where do we go from here?’

There is no doubt that this is a crisis of epic proportions. It has had severe impacts on healthcare infrastructure and on our frontline health professionals’ daily lives and mental health. Yet, there is also a cautious optimism that a success of this crisis could be the improved ways of working together with healthcare professionals pushing against regulations and bureaucracy, in the interest of providing safe and effective patient care. Systems, it is hoped, will be more resilient and effective in the long run. However, we will need to take stock before these possibilities are translated into tangible benefits.

The Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) represents high street community pharmacies. Our members’ teams have been there, on the frontline with patients since day one. Community pharmacy maintained a key role in the pandemic throughout difficult, and often avoidable, circumstances. Yet our sector is often overlooked in the role that it plays within the NHS, within communities, and within multi-disciplinary teams. It is constricted by outdated bureaucracy and a lack of systems integration with other healthcare providers. This blog highlights the key messages from community pharmacy on the lessons to be learnt from a challenging year.

Better communication and engagement from NHS and health bodies

At the beginning of 2020, the UK and the health sector were not prepared for a pandemic novel corona virus. Now, the UK has one year’s experience with Covid-19. For community pharmacy, this is one year directly supporting patients on the frontline. When the first wave of the pandemic hit, the public turned to community pharmacy in droves. Not just for additional prescription medicines but also for self care medicines and treatments, for advice, reassurance, and support.  Colleagues had to work additional hours restocking shelves as this could not be done during opening hours as these were all spent with patients. The public trust in the professionalism and expertise in community pharmacy is evident. We ask that health bodies confer the same trust in our sector as we continue the fight against Covid and support the public in the years to come.

Our community pharmacy frontline colleagues have been directly affected by the implications of lockdowns and home isolations and rely on their employers (our members) for accurate and safe advice, and ongoing support.  Communication from the NHS and key health bodies with trade associations and employers should have been better and needs to be improved. In the early stages, NHS and government messaging was unclear on many of the key topics needed to keep pharmacy teams and the public safe. This included access to, and appropriate use of, PPE. The community pharmacy sector was often left to gather critical information from contacts across general practice, opticians, and dentistry to make sense of the various guidance and discussions. We had to push for more inclusion at key meetings and for wider engagement as vital stakeholders.

Engagement is a key learning point from this pandemic. In September 2020, the CCA, along with the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA), wrote to Matt Hancock’s vaccine implementation group to recommend that it engages with the expertise of community pharmacy and key pharmaceutical distributors at the earliest stage. Patients want their Covid vaccine, just like their flu vaccine, at their trusted local community pharmacy and enquire about this regularly. Therefore, we urge health bodies to keep our sector front and centre of ongoing and future healthcare strategies.

Community pharmacy as a linchpin for the NHS

We need the NHS to recognise that community pharmacy is front and centre of the patient journey and a linchpin for the NHS. Our teams worked tirelessly to keep the country safe. Recognition for our hardworking professionals may have prevented the CCA from needing to lobby for their right to access to PPE, for key worker status, for access to testing, or for death in service payments. This recognition needs to be without question as we move into post-pandemic recovery plans. To support recovery, a fair and sustainable level of funding is needed for pharmacies across all nations. This is to ensure that community pharmacy can continue to stay open in an austere climate and be a key partner to the NHS.

NHS to help us to help them

It is often stated that community pharmacy has the potential to ‘relieve capacity’ for general practice. This means that community pharmacy has the competence and skills to treat minor ailments and other urgent care needs, as well as providing advice and support for people who need to manage their own long-term conditions and well-being. Millions of GP appointments could be transferred to community pharmacy teams. This is time that GPs need to focus on complex health cases and undiagnosed cancers. However, community pharmacy is not sitting on a reserve of unused capacity. This exchange of resource requires the NHS to allow agile ways of working within community pharmacy. This includes enabling better digital integration and greater uptake of Electronic Repeat Dispensing (eRD). Relatively simple solutions such as original pack dispensing would save pharmacy teams many hours’ time from snipping blister packs. Therefore, we ask the NHS to help us so that we can help them.

Rebecca Lucas

Policy and Programmes Manager

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