This article first appeared in Pharmacy Business magazine.
Last year it was climate emergency, the year before that it was toxic. In 2016, we had the year of post-truth, while 2012 and 2008 celebrated omnishambles and credit crunch respectively.
These are, of course, the winners of the Word of the Year, awarded by academics at Oxford University Press to a word or expression that has captured the cultural zeitgeist and piqued the nation’s interest over the previous 12 months.
2020 has been unprecedented in so many ways that the award has been expanded this year to include a range of various terms that have thrust their way into our consciousness – whether we liked it or not. Who could have predicted, for example, that “furlough” would be a word we would all casually drop into conversations on an almost daily basis?
OUP says use of the word “pandemic” increased by more than 57,000 per cent this year, with Google Trends data adding that searches containing the term “pandemic” in the UK were at a historical high in early March 2020. These search levels were 100 times above the previous year’s level and more than four times above the previous peak, which was recorded during the swine flu outbreak of 2009.
From pandemic to endemic
These surges of interest show how the language of the virus quickly filters down from scientific jargon into everyday conversation, and recent events may lead to another shift in the way we talk about Covid-19. On December 2, the MHRA gave UK approval for the vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, paving the way for a national roll-out of the jab, which offers up to 95 per cent protection against Covid-19.
This significant development has been met with an appropriately positive reaction. It is worth remembering, however, that just six weeks earlier, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer for England, struck a more cautious tone with the joint Commons and Lords national security strategy committee.
While he said “some doses” of a successful vaccine may be possible before the spring, it would be unlikely they would be widely available any earlier, underlining the fact that it would also not offer 100 per cent protection.
Add in to the mix challenges around logistics and distribution (the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be stored at -70C) and reticence among some sections of the population to being vaccinated and it is easy to agree with Sir Patrick’s assessment that the current pandemic would continue to circulate for some time, ultimately becoming “endemic”.
This forecast – in line with the view of experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – represents a step change in our relationship with the virus. It will gradually come to be an accepted – if unwanted – part of our lives over the longer term, with recurring outbreaks expected over cooler winter months as people increasingly gather indoors.
Vaccination programmes will continue, as will scientific research into 100 per cent effective treatments, but everyday life will become more geared to coping with its presence.
The impact of this will be felt most keenly on the large swathes of pharmacy patients managing long-term conditions as well as older people seeking to minimise their risk.
For these people, the extreme of shielding is not a sustainable answer, meaning there will certainly be a continued adherence to social distancing in some form. Whether it’s home delivery or click and collect, these groups will choose to make adjustments that limit interactions with others, particularly where they are presented with convenient, viable alternatives.
Uncovering efficiencies, unlocking resource
And just as your patients are considering how they live in a socially distanced world, then so must your business.
But where do you begin? Well, a pharmacy’s success is built around the interactions between the pharmacy team and the pharmacy’s patients, so that’s as good a place as any. And if we look at these interactions, what can we learn?
From our experience of installing the Pharmaself24 collection units, we can see that while every patient contact is important, it does not follow that every interaction is equal. For example, consider a parent collecting antibiotics for their child or a patient newly discharged from hospital on new medication or a patient requesting advice on a side effect – these are all patient-pharmacy interactions where expert input adds huge value.
But what about patients with stable long-term conditions on stable medication regimes who are managing their health and just pop in once a month to collect their medicines? For these patients, contact mainly revolves around checking their name and address.
Considering this cohort makes up the bulk of a pharmacy’s customer base, automating the handing-out of these medicines can – and does – free up significant amounts of time and resource for the pharmacy team.
And this freeing up of capacity isn’t just to help with the huge workloads associated with the current pandemic, there is still an expectation from governments that pharmacies should make the most of their easy access and professional skills to provide the clinical and public health services that the sector knows can alleviate pressure on GPs and secondary care providers – dependent on funding, of course.
For pharmacy, therefore, perhaps “automation” should be an early contender for Word of the Year in 2021. If applied in the right way, automation can bring transformative benefits for business owners and patients alike, such as greater efficiency and a better experience – qualities that could, and arguably should, be endemic to the pharmacy profession in the years to come.
Gary Paragpuri is CEO of Hub and Spoke Innovations.