The role of the community pharmacist in Covid-19

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 December, 2020 at 11:56 am by Andre Camilleri

Marcus Zarb Cousin, Director Anici Pharmacy Group

For many, the community pharmacist is the first port of call for any sort of medical advice in a local community setting.

I’ve always felt that the most critical aspect of being a community pharmacist is being accessible to our patients whenever it is needed. With this accessibility, comes a huge responsibility to be well informed and knowledgeable on the ever-changing medical landscape.  Despite the fact that many still critically undervalue the profession, during the current global pandemic, I believe community pharmacists have stepped up to the plate and proven to be a vital cog in being the first liners in the education of our patients with regards to the novel Covid- 19 virus.

Retail pharmacy hit an all-time high during March and February this year. News of the first Covid-19 positive case on our islands sent the island into a frenzy that was previously unimaginable. All other establishments were closed, and a semi lockdown was imposed, leading to a drastic increase in traffic in retail pharmacies. Medications were stockpiled as rumours of out-of-stock roared on relentlessly. Masks and sanitisers disappeared from sight at the time when it was needed most.

Information Filtering
This frenzy has now subsided, and we now know much more about the disease. However, it was in those first few months where the role of the pharmacist became so important. Doctors’ clinics and hospital appointments were cancelled, leaving pharmacists as the only recognisable point of help for many patients. The usual advice of healthy living and a nutritious diet became even more important. Exercise was greatly encouraged, and the correct vitamins were recommended to our clients.

People flocked to the pharmacies in their droves in search of assistance and advice. We emphasised the importance of listening to and respecting health guidelines to the letter. Pharmacies around Malta and Gozo blocked off the entrances with Perspex and put into practice the value of social distancing. Our role was to educate on the nature of the virus and our patients were greatly encouraged to filter their sources of information online. My colleagues played an immense role in relaying the right information of being extremely careful by sanitising constantly, as well as the importance of wearing masks in the correct and most safe manner.  For the safety of our staff, we also blocked the entrance into the pharmacy.

Hidden Epidemic
The biggest issue we came across was how to ensure that the mental health of our patients was being taken care of.   Mental health problems are common and have aggravated during these trying times.  It is the hidden toll having an effect on many individuals. Anxiety levels are through the roof as many have become concerned about their family’s safety and their economic downturn. We were encouraged to give as much time to the patient as was deemed necessary.  Despite the frenetic pace of our work, nobody was hurried along, and everybody was listened to attentively. During lockdown the brief pharmacist-patient interaction may have been the only contact they may have had with others. Our training in recognising signs of depression became invaluable. We insisted on people calling their friends and family regularly, to make sure that they were doing OK. Our training allowed us to be empathetic to our clients. Our job was to ease concerns in a time when there were many unknowns. Feelings of isolation, changes in usual sleeping patterns and reduced levels of sleep all contributed to a general feeling of being overwhelmed.

Pharmacy Changes
We implemented the Perspex barrier mentioned above. This ensured that we had a two-metre distance from everyone at all times. The Pharmacy of Your Choice folders were sanitised and left for 48 hours before being worked on, which is a practice we still implement today. Contactless payments became hugely encouraged and in one of our pharmacies we introduced a machine that handles cash so the employees won’t have to. Once our doctors began seeing patients again, we established an efficient appointment system. Patients were vetted beforehand by asking a series of questions about the reason for their visit and consultations were kept short and sweet to ensure the safety of our Medical Practitioners.

Throughout the past nine months we have realised that pharmacists go through the exact same difficulties as the general public.  We encourage open communication about pharmacists’ fears and any difficulties that might arise due to the new way of living. Everyone needed to know that they were not alone. Many healthcare workers had to move away from their family in order to continue providing the essential service that the local community needed. They brought their absolute best to work every day through the most trying periods of recent history. For that I hope that the general public gives all healthcare workers the appreciation and respect that they deserve.

Importance of flu vaccine/corona vaccine
Take the coronavirus vaccine. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet, but once again we urge the population to take the advice of our health authorities. The vaccine is the only sure-fire method of protecting ourselves against the virus and eventually getting back to a semblance of the lifestyle we previously enjoyed. Without the vaccine we leave ourselves open to the dangerous nature of this deadly virus.

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