At the end of September, we take time to celebrate the heart of our business – our pharmacists working in communities across the world – during World Pharmacists Day, on September 25. This year, though, the role of the pharmacist has taken on a completely new meaning. We asked four pharmacists from Walgreens, Boots, and our Alphega pharmacy network to share their experiences on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what the challenges and triumphs of the past six months have taught them about the unique strengths of their chosen profession.
Pharmacist and store manager, Walgreens, Houston, Texas
As a pharmacist, I felt my duty was always to serve my community. So when COVID-19 began, I wanted to be on the frontline to combat the virus. I wanted to fight the spread of this virus. When I had the opportunity to lead the team that opened the first Walgreens testing site in Houston, I jumped at the chance.
Before we even opened, we had to learn a lot of new processes and procedures. My goal was to make sure everyone at the testing site was safe. We worked hard to make sure that everyone was staying six feet apart; that our patients understood that they should remain in their cars, not just open the window, and not walk towards us.
My other objective was to help ensure the accuracy of this test. Many steps needed to be taken to make sure that the test is conducted appropriately, and then we must communicate the result to the patient. One of the challenges that we faced was that Houston is one of the largest cities in the U.S. and we have so many diverse communities here, so there was often a language barrier, especially for those in our Hispanic and Asian communities.
To effectively communicate with all of our patients, I recruited bilingual team members and trained them for the testing sites. From there, we started educating everyone in our community and that's helped our numbers of people tested to grow. Once people knew that we had a bilingual team member on site, we were able to detect some positive cases that I believe may have otherwise gone untested.
Still, I wanted to do even more. Because Walgreens does not participate in contract tracing activities, I decided to take a course on contact tracing from Johns Hopkins because I understood that part of the importance of stopping the spreading of this virus is not just isolating the COVID-19 patient; but also seek to identify their contacts and quarantine them. Aside from learning vital information about the disease – the incubation period, infectious period, and the clinical presentation – the course helped me understand how to build rapport with the patient, how to make sure we gain their trust and help them to overcome the common barriers for isolation – because we’ve seen so many examples of people who don't understand what they should or shouldn't do. We help them, we give them advice, we work together to come up with a solution for barriers. Also we help them to identify their contacts, so that they can also get tested.
Because of my involvement with testing, I am practicing at the top of my license. Educating patients is something that has always been a part of our work as pharmacists, so that part of my job hasn’t changed. We’ve received so much appreciation and that thank you cards from our community, just to express how much they appreciate our hard work. That makes me really happy, and proud to have been a part of this effort.
Pharmacist, Boots UK
I’m a pharmacist at Boots in Piccadilly Circus in London. In March, when our prime minister announced the first-ever lockdown, it was only pharmacies, supermarkets and a few other places that left their doors open. As an essential retailer, we had to establish new ways of working, and to help keep our colleagues safe, so that we’re able to help our people, and help our communities.
We saw a massive rise in our NHS 111 and urgent care referrals, because hospitals were not able to see anybody coming in for any walk-in appointments. We were getting people queuing up outside the store because all the social distancing measures kicked in at the same time as well, and we had to review how many people we could let into the pharmacy at the same time. Every morning when I entered, we had people waiting outside and the majority of them were referrals from hospitals: people who had run out of their epilepsy medication; people who were having asthma attacks; people who had complicated urinary tract infections… all these people who would normally walk into an emergency department and get triaged and seen by a doctor or nurse, who were now all coming into the pharmacy for what we call a community pharmacy consultation, or CPC.
Another thing that happened is that many of the nearby, smaller pharmacy businesses were either closed or operating on reduced hours. Luckily, we have an electronic prescription service through the National Health Service (NHS), and we’re able to access them even if they aren’t registered with Boots. So there was one point, for probably a stretch of five to six weeks, where we had a dedicated member of the pharmacy team who was just tracking prescriptions for all these people who typically used other pharmacies.
Aside from this increase in patients and prescriptions, in May time, we started hearing news that cases of domestic abuse had spiked because the country was in isolation, in a lockdown. There were situations where the victim was isolating with the perpetrator. And there was no help because everything was closed. They couldn't even go out and have a cup of coffee and speak to their friends about what they were going through. I kept thinking, there must be a way that we can help.
I found out that Boots had partnered with a domestic abuse charity called Hestia for the Safe Spaces campaign. For the campaign, we used our consultation rooms, which are normally use for services like vaccinations (weren’t getting much use because of the lockdown), into safe spaces.
Our team went through the training and implemented signage and visuals that let customers know, if you are suffering or if you know anybody who is suffering from any kind of abuse, you can talk to a pharmacist. Then, once the person is in the consultation room, we have an app that was put in place which is very easy to use and would connect them to telephone numbers, websites and unaffiliated service providers. They could just have space in our rooms to gather their thoughts, make phone calls, talk about what they were going through to find help and come out of that situation. We believe we helped quite a few people by running this campaign.
To me, being a Boots pharmacist means that you put your patients' interests at heart first, before yourself. If you look at COVID-19 and how unprecedented times are, pharmacists quickly come up with new strategies and ways to help. We are always around as a first port of call for people who can just come in and talk to us about medication or their conditions. We’re always open, and we’re always here to serve the public in any way we can.
Pharmacist and pharmacy owner, Alphega Pharmacy network, Getafe, Spain
The beginning of the pandemic was very strange, chaotic and unexpected. From the first time we heard about COVID-19 here to the time everything was shut down, it seemed like it was only a week or two. Things happened very quickly. At first, we thought it was like the flu. When we realized that wasn’t the case, we still didn't know exactly what we were fighting.
By March 15, most everything in the city was closed except the “essential” establishments like pharmacies and supermarkets. The hospitals were full of people close to death, and most primary care centers were closed. My pharmacy is on the outskirts of Madrid, about four kilometers from where the spread of COVID-19 was at its highest. As pharmacists, we were prepared because of our studies and experience, but we were not getting much information from the local health authorities, so it was challenging.
Many of our patients are elderly people. So we tried to be present in their lives, sending them text messages, calling them, as well as preparing their medications and taking steps to help keep them safe. Being a community pharmacy, our patients are not just a number; we see many of them every day. We know their lives, their families, if they have a chronic diseases. We worried about them not only due to the healthcare crisis of COVID-19, but also the psychological crisis they were facing being isolated.
Today, it is still not back to normal. We have not removed the partitions or the air purifiers from the pharmacy; we have not changed our mission to protect our patients during the pandemic. We do try to keep a good sense of humor in the pharmacy, and remember that the most important thing we can do for our patients is not be a slave to fear. We need our patients to feel that when they arrive at the pharmacy, they are safe, and that we are going to help them.
I'm very proud to be part of WBA, and the profession of pharmacy. We have been able to give advice and support to our patients, and give the tools they need for both physical and psychological health. This pandemic has shown what we are able to do for our communities.
Pharmacist and pharmacy owner, Alphega Pharmacy network, Alba County, Romania
Here in Romania, when we first heard news of the virus in December, we all though it's okay. It's far away. It won't come to us. We don't have to panic. But in early March, the virus hit us. It produced a lot of fear of the unknown, as every day the TV showed news of a lot of death in Italy, and then in Spain. And then, many people were very, very afraid. So we decided that instead of feeling afraid, we needed to learn more about this virus, so that we could help our community to calm down.
At my pharmacy, we have been fighting for our community’s health for 26 years. We are in a town of about 20,000 inhabitants, it is a small community, and because of this, the relations between us and the patients are much closer. We know many of our patients by name and we have extraordinary relationships with them based on trust and respect.
Our mission says that we are a pharmacy which offers you more than medicine, more than drugs. We offer you a smile. We listen, and we find the best solution for your problem. And we have always gone past the pharmacy counter, running prevention and education campaigns, and different conferences every year to improve the health in our city. This influenced the way we responded to COVID-19. From the very beginning, we took all the measures to feel safe without thinking about any costs, both for patients and for the staff, because when it comes to the health of the patients, our team and their family, nothing else matters.
When everyone was running to find masks and gloves - even the hospitals - we were very proud to give them everything we could, even if our stock for sale evaporated because we wanted to help. We didn’t think about commercial things, or anything else. We only tried to help our community. And when we saw their faces and their thanks, it was something very special.
The Alphega pharmacy group is a growing and very united community. We're like a big family, and we always talk to each other and make decisions together. It was essential that we were united from the first moment of the pandemic, because it helped us remain calm and find solutions to get through this period. There were concrete things that helped, like online prescription services that helped us limit patient exposure, and the Alphega app which was launched. And last but not least, the resources we had for information and prevention that we were able to distribute along with masks and disinfectants to our customers.
I'm very proud of every one of my colleagues, who have in these hard times stood on the front line and risked their own health for their community's health. I think this pandemic has taught us to value more the things that really matter, to prioritize human interaction and put more attention on health in the places where we live.