“It has been the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my 15-year career as a community pharmacist”

Reflections from Derek Jamieson, Community and Prescribing Support Pharmacist, on how LloydsPharmacy in Abercromby Street took to battle with COVID-19.

For me, the reality of COVID-19 really hit home when I had to be tested for it. Both my wife and I work in healthcare and had mentally prepared ourselves for the possibility that we might catch the virus. Luckily neither of us have, but the worry that I might have contracted the virus and unknowingly passed it on to my team, my family or a patient took its toll emotionally.

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that it was only January of this year that the controversy about pharmacists “only dispensing pills” emerged from ITV’s This Morning programme. Fast forward 6 months, and now community pharmacy teams are being thanked nationally by the likes of the Prime Minister, The Royal Family, chief medical officers and the general public. To say 2020 has been a bit of a whirlwind so far is probably an understatement.

For me, when I think back to March, I had no idea I was about to go into battle on the frontline with the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my over 15-year career as a community pharmacist. It was as if someone turned a tap on overnight and then just left it running for weeks on end. Prescriptions surged, the request for deliveries skyrocketed and the phone just did not stop ringing. Our patients suddenly needed us more than ever before.

Mostly, the calls were from people shielding and looking for advice about a minor ailment or their medication. Patients were worried and turning to us for answers, but we didn’t always have them. I think that’s one of the things I’ve struggled with the most, not always having the answer to the patient’s questions about the virus, and learning to live with more shades of grey in my decision making. Keeping up to date on relevant guidance and information was also difficult as it seemed to change hourly.

We had to limit the number of people that could physically be in the pharmacy and began operating a 2 in 2 out policy. Patients had to queue outside and wait to get their medicines. We’ve experienced some abuse which has been fuelled by the longer waiting times. I think it has been harder to deal with abuse rationally during the pandemic. You’re trying your best and putting your family at risk, only to be shouted at by a patient – it’s been difficult to take at times. PPE has also been a challenge in itself. You somehow feel held back and enclosed by it. Conversations with patients are much harder with a mask and visor on and from behind a screen – everything feels less personable.

It’s been hard to stay positive at times, but our patients have been the driving factor in all of this, even the ones we haven’t been able to see. We’ve kept our doors and our phonelines open every day to help keep them safe and well. Despite feeling anxious themselves, the team have worked harder than ever before. They’ve really stepped up to support the needs of our patients, whilst looking out for one another too.

The biggest change throughout all of this has most definitely been the change in perception of community pharmacy. People now see us as an important part of their care network and we’re being more included in the NHS’s thinking which is a real positive. There’s genuine appreciation for the work we do and the services we provide. At the height of the outbreak, when most other healthcare professionals were conducting appointments online or over the phone, you could still come into the pharmacy and speak to us – that’s been a lifeline for a lot of people.

Community pharmacy in Scotland has become much more integrated with the NHS. We increased our services during the crisis, with the extension of the National Minor Ailment Service (MAS) to all patients in Scotland. Where other services cut back on access to patients, we increased the service to the whole population.

As a nation, Scotland can be divided on political and footballing issues, but this pandemic has brought our communities and our nation so much closer together. The willingness to support each other throughout all of this has been palpable and that’s something that will live with me long after this is all over.

My ask now to the Government, as we move forward into a new kind or normal, is not to forget the role community pharmacy has played in this pandemic and what we can achieve as a profession when we all work together. Community pharmacy, primary care and hospital pharmacy have all pulled together to support patients and deliver care as one pharmacy profession – that needs to be remembered.

Seeing the pace at which things can change if the situation allows has been a real eye-opener. Things that had previously been labelled impossible or debated for many years, such as community pharmacy access to patient’s emergency care summaries, became a reality and allowed us, with the patients consent, to access up to date information. This helped us to answer many queries from patients and aided us to supply medication in situations where they had ran out during the lockdown. This eased some of the pressures felt by other parts of the healthcare system and demonstrated the value of shared information. It is essential that this access across healthcare settings continues after COVID-19 for the benefit of all patients.

The pandemic has shown just how vital healthcare workers are and the appreciation for them needs to stretch far beyond a Thursday night clap. Their dedication has been unquestionable, and the Government needs to look at how it supports these key workers and professions financially because without them I’m not sure we would have survived this battle.

It’s been hard. Really hard. We’ve all been physically and mentally stressed at times but together we’ve ridden the wave and things are slowly returning to some sort of normality. I’m not sure anything will ever quite be the same again but one thing I am sure of, is that I’m proud to be a pharmacist, now, more than ever.