It may not look like much, but the blue, green and white pin badge worn by a local Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacist packs a powerful punch.
For those in the middle of their cancer journey, it’s a symbol of hope. For those who are tightly holding the hands of their loved one during their battle, it’s a reminder that they’re not alone. And for Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacists (BMIPs) and Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisors (BMBAs) across the UK, it’s a badge of honor.
This small pin symbolizes the mighty impact that Boots UK’s partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support is having on those living with cancer – a small but significant reminder that we’re all in this together.
To learn more about the power and meaning behind the pin, we spoke with Morag Punton. A pharmacist, and the Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Boots UK, Punton discusses the British retailer’s pioneering partnership with the cancer charity.
Boots UK and Macmillan Cancer Support have been charity partners for over a decade. Can you tell us about the impact of the work we do together?
This January, we’ll be starting our 12th year in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support. As a pharmacist within Boots, it was hugely exciting to see that come to life back in 2009.
Macmillan wanted to make sure that people living with cancer had access to robust information and support at every stage of their journey, and we had the skilled pharmacists and store coverage. Together, we co-created a bespoke training program to enable a Boots Pharmacist to become a BMIP, helping them to understand the holistic needs of people living with cancer, and be able to provide information and support to them and their loved ones, from a Boots pharmacy.
Because Boots is a pharmacy-led, health and beauty retailer, we then began thinking about this from a beauty perspective. We listened to people living with cancer and it soon became apparent that there was a role for our skilled No7 Beauty Advisors to have extra training and support from Macmillan. The Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisor role soon followed, and their training enables them to help people living with the physical impact of cancer. From your eyebrows and eyelashes falling out during treatment, to the changes that you see in your skin, BMBAs can help people living with cancer feel more like themselves.
Our BMIPs and BMBAs often hear the feedback, “I can come to you with issues that I wouldn’t bother my doctor about.” I’m quite sure their doctor wouldn’t feel bothered, but the fact that we can make these services more accessible means maybe those questions don’t go unanswered.
What does this partnership mean to you, personally?
When the partnership first started, I knew a lot of people with personal stories about how Macmillan had helped their friends and family. I had been fortunate at the time not to have a connection on a personal level, but I of course knew of the great work that Macmillan did. Having seen how cancer impacted many of my patients as a community pharmacist in Scotland, and knowing that sadly one in two people in the UK would be affected at some point in their lifetime, our partnership made complete sense and I was keen to support it.
I’ve been involved in various fundraisers ahead of joining the CSR team. One of them came with the privilege of climbing Kilimanjaro back in 2014. I remember the leader stopping us the night before we reached the summit and telling us why he was there: “My partner is going through cancer treatment,” he told us. “And the only reason I’m here is because all of you are doing this for Macmillan.” He then went on to explain the brilliant care that Macmillan was giving to his partner and I just thought, oh my goodness! Somebody has given up being beside their partner to guide us up this mountain. Macmillan must be something super special for somebody to do that.
A few years after that experience, I transferred into my role as the Head of CSR, which meant I was able to help shape the future of our partnership. Boots and Macmillan, together with the passion and care of our colleagues behind it, is quite a force and it really cements the power of our partnership when you think about the impact we’re having in communities.
What has been your proudest moment regarding your partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support?
This is a tough one. What gets me is the scale of the impact we’ve had. As of December 31, 2020, we have about 2,000 BMIPs and over 900 BMBAs, and when you add up the impact they’ve had, it’s huge. Last year alone, our BMIPs had over 63,000 conversations, and our BMBAs provided over 21,000 consultations – against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the power and volume of our specially trained colleagues, and the breadth of their care, we are making a real difference to the lives of people living with cancer, as well as their loved ones.
Are there any stories that have resonated with you from this partnership?
There are countless examples. We’ve even seen our pharmacists being called guardian angels! Every single time I try and explain one of these stories, I end up in a flood of tears.
There’s one patient in particular, Gill, who visited one of our stores for an appointment with Charlotte, a BMBA. They developed such a great relationship that Gill asked Charlotte to do her wedding makeup. You don’t just trust anyone with that! That’s the day you’re aiming to look your absolute best, and Charlotte knew how to make her feel her best. It was lovely.
Another story that moves me is about Graham, a BMIP. One day in store, he noticed a gentleman glancing at his Macmillan badge. Graham could see he was quite distressed, so took him into the consultation room where he shared that his wife had cancer. Unfortunately, her pain relief and anti-sickness medication was making her drowsy and he was having problems communicating with her. Graham then reviewed the medication, contacted the patient’s GP to discuss the situation, and agreed some adjustments. This allowed the couple to share meaningful conversations in the last two weeks of her life.
The gentleman soon returned after his wife's funeral and kindly thanked Graham for intervening. This small adjustment made such a huge difference to their final few days together. It just goes to show how something as small as a pin badge can trigger impactful conversations, and has become a mighty symbol of our partnership.
What is your vision for the future of the partnership?
As we're working through the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re continuing to make sure our partnership is relevant for people living with cancer. A key focus for us in 2021 is: how can we increase the number of pharmacists that become BMIPs? Quite simply, with more BMIPs, we can increase the number of conversations; increase access to expert care in community; and increase the reach of our partnership.
What we’re yet to see is the full effect of the pandemic. Unfortunately, one of the fall-outs of COVID-19 has been that as many as 50,000 people in the UK who have cancer haven’t been diagnosed, and over 30,000 fewer people have started their cancer treatment than last year due to the strain on our healthcare system. It is even estimated that it could take as long as 18 months to tackle these backlogs.
Inevitably, these delays mean that when a diagnosis is made, it could be at a later stage of cancer. This means treatment options may be more limited, and the prognosis potentially poorer. With all this in mind, we will continue to encourage people to get any symptoms checked out; increase people’s confidence in seeing their general practitioner (GP); and help ease any fears that they are adding pressure to the National Health Service (NHS). It also means that we need to equip our pharmacists even more to help care for those needing end of life, palliative care.
How did Boots embrace innovation to ensure people living with cancer could access essential healthcare during the pandemic?
First, we spoke with Macmillan to understand what was happening in their world. What were the important issues that they were dealing with, and how could our partnership best support? In July and August alone, there were something like 70,000 less GP referrals than the year before, so we worked with Macmillan to think about how we could utilize Boots’ channels to try and increase this. Many people stayed away from their GP for fear of over-burdening the NHS, while others feared contracting COVID-19. As part of our Chief Pharmacist’s advice series, Marc Donovan and Macmillan’s Chief Medical Officer, Rosie Loftus, helped to provide reassurance and encouraged people to get their symptoms checked.
While our pharmacies were open during lockdown, footfall on the high street was down and when people did visit, they wanted to come in and out as quickly as they could, understandably. This meant there were not as many chances for people to see our colleagues wearing the Boots Macmillan pin badges, which are quite often the starting point of many meaningful conversations. So we thought, “how could we reach people with our partnership online?”
Our No7 Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisors were able to do this first, offering free virtual make-up and skincare advice on how to manage the visible side-effects of cancer treatment. With so many people using video calls for work-related and social activities, we had a lot of positive feedback for this service. We took learnings from this and we were then able to, in partnership with LIVI, provide free, online consultations with a Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacist.
For the second year running, Boots partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support has been voted the ‘Most-Admired’ Corporate NGO partnership in the C&E barometer. How significant is this achievement?
We don’t do this for the awards, but it’s lovely when other people recognize what the partnership has done and the impact it has had. With this award in particular, it’s something our peers – and Macmillan’s peers – have voted for. It’s based on recollection, so it relies on people knowing and remembering our partnership and the pioneering work we’re doing.
It’s an amazing accolade for our partnership to have won this award twice in a row. Our BMIPs and BMBAs do so much for our partnership and make a real difference at a local level every day. For their incredible work to be the “most admired” really means a lot – it’s really significant!
But we don’t rest on our laurels. We continue to challenge ourselves and we’re always thinking, “what more can our partnership do?”
How has your pharmacy experience influenced your role as the head of CSR?
It’s hard to believe I started working at Boots almost 25 years ago. I qualified as a pharmacist in 1997, and then moved to Edinburgh to work in our flagship Princes Street store.
CSR has always been something I've been actively interested in, and being part of the CSR team has helped me realize its ties with pharmacy. One of the questions I asked myself when I first started in the role was, at what point does being a pharmacist end and CSR start? I got myself twisted into a couple of knots but then I thought, you know what? It doesn’t actually matter. The beauty is that they blend together. And actually, as a pharmacist, you can transfer those skills and make a difference across the wider CSR agenda.
Being a pharmacist is about putting your patient first, and one of the main reasons for choosing pharmacy as a career was to have a purpose and to make a difference. With my role in CSR, both are still true, as I help our business and our colleagues to make a difference through our purpose. With my healthcare background, it made sense for me to drive a CSR agenda that is healthcare-led. I think having a pharmacy background helped me to have a deeper, more immediate understanding of the impact we can have in our communities, such as through our partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support.
What does the phrase ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ mean to you?
It's an interesting one. Lots of different companies call it different things, but for me it simply means doing the right thing – as individuals, and collectively as a business – and doing it with a clear purpose.
This extends across our impact on the planet. It covers the impact on our colleagues through our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion agenda. It involves working with our Global Brands and looking at the impact of our own brand products, as well as driving our community agenda through our charity partnerships. We bring all these elements together in our CSR approach and incorporate it into our decision-making as a business.
But perhaps there’s an even deeper meaning: our colleagues help us to create movements.
Looking at our community agenda in particular, we have around 52,000 colleagues and what’s brilliant is when they feel empowered to bring our CSR impact to life in their local communities. Raising money for our partnerships is hugely important, and we’ve raised over £19 million for Macmillan Cancer Support, but for us it’s much more than that. It’s about having a deeper purpose that goes beyond fundraising and enables colleagues to have a meaningful connection with people in their communities. For example, our BMIPs and BMBAs use their skills and knowledge to have a direct and immediate impact on their patients.
For Boots, our colleagues are at the heart of our business. They are the people interacting with customers in their communities and providing the bespoke care they need. When we engage colleagues, the impact is exponential.