The speed with which coronavirus has spread and the devastating impact it has had, particularly in certain parts of Europe, has been a shock for us all.
As we come to terms with it here in the UK and look to implement social distancing measures, it’s clear that people are anxious. The community pharmacy sector is already playing a hugely important role in supporting patients, and here at West Elloe Pharmacy in Spalding we are working hard to keep pace.
Already a high-volume pharmacy at over 25,000 items per month, things have gone through the roof in recent weeks and in the 20 or more years that I have been here, I’ve never seen anything like this.
Enforcing social distancing
Despite the additional demand, patients do recognise that they should be keeping away as much as possible. If an infected patient enters the pharmacy, it’s obviously a big problem for us given the huge volumes we dispense. People standing in queues could spread it to each other and there is a chance that staff can be exposed. We then face the prospect of undertaking a time-consuming cleaning process, and while the official clean-up kits provided to us will do the job, it won’t be the same as a deep-clean operation from an outside company – we’ll have to sort it out ourselves.
There is concern among my employees as well. This is partly about pay and the potential financial implications but it’s also about getting ill from the virus. Our response to protect them has been to adopt a policy of limiting contact with patients as much as we possibly can. We’ve put tables up in front of the counter as a makeshift distancing obstacle, and I’ve seen other pharmacies across the UK adopting a range of different approaches to achieve the same aim, whether that’s Perspex barriers on counters or lines marked on the floor to ensure patients queue at a safe distance from each other.
Moving patients to collection points
Our real saviour has been our two Pharmaself24 collection points, which give us the means for patients to pick-up their medicines outside the pharmacy, minimising any contact. They have effectively become our first line of support for patients as well as our first line of defence for the team.
Anyone who has previously used the Pharmaself24 will continue to do so, and we have also extended this to include any patients whose mobile number we have. The overall response from my patients has been very positive – everyone has been very understanding about why we’ve changed things for them.
One gentleman had requested use of our delivery service to avoid contact with other people. We explained there was added pressure on deliveries right now, but that he was able to collect from the machines outside. He got it straight away; he totally understood. Now he walks to the pharmacy with his dog in the evening and knows his medicines are available from the Pharmaself24.
The same rules apply in terms of washing hands thoroughly when returning home, but the risk is far lower from the machine. Also, the social etiquette around the use of things like cash machines helps here as people naturally keep a certain distance from each other when using it.
What the numbers say
Overall, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of patients using the Pharmaself24, and that picture is playing out across the country in pharmacies that have a collection point installed. At West Elloe Pharmacy in the past week, we’ve loaded just short of 800 bags into the machines compared with just over 500 the previous week - an increase of around 60% that has coincided with the government's official advice for greater social distancing.
And if you look at the times of day of those collections, you can see that patients are taking advantage of the fact that the Pharmaself24 machines are available 24 hours a day.
That's nearly 800 times patients didn’t have to come into the pharmacy in the past week, and 800 times we’ve been able to minimise their coronavirus risk while ensuring they still get whatever medicines they need.
As demand continues to grow, we’re also aiming to reduce the collection period from three days to two days, increasing the number of medicines made available through the machines and benefiting more patients in the process.
As far as possible, we want the service they receive to stay consistent, but coronavirus is having a major impact on us all and will be with us for some time. Moving collections to the Pharmaself24 is a short-term change that we believe we need to make in the interests of our own resilience and being here for patients in the long-term.