COVID-19: how to use pharmacies during the coronavirus pandemic

GP surgeries and pharmacies are far busier than usual as the health service faces enormous pressure during nationwide coronavirus lockdown. So what is it like to work in pharmacy at the moment and how can your pharmacist still help you?

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Pharmacists have long been the unsung heroes of healthcare. When patients can’t get a GP appointment, many take their minor ailments and health worries to their pharmacist. You can even book appointments, including in some areas video consultations, with your pharmacist through services like Patient Access.

How are pharmacists still able to help during the lockdown?

Pharmacies are crucial to helping communities stay healthy. But in light of the coronavirus pandemic, many of them are currently working without protective equipment, despite sick and vulnerable people coming in for advice. So we all need to adapt to how pharmacies are having to work to protect themselves and us during the outbreak.

"Pharmacies are open for patients at the moment but hours may be reduced because of some of the teams becoming sick themselves," says Raj Matharu, Chair of Pharmacy London. "This does place considerable strain on the team, but we're small units, like a family, and help each other out."

Pharmacies are having to take special measures to protect staff and patients during the coronavirus outbreak. These might include:

  • Screens in place to avoid contaminating staff.
  • Tape on the floor to help patients maintain social distancing.
  • Encouraging patients to pay with contactless debit cards rather than cash.
  • Limits on the number of patients allowed inside the pharmacy at one time.
  • Asking patients to wait outside for some prescriptions.

Community pharmacists are the only frontline community healthcare professionals providing face-to-face appointments with patients. However, many are unable to get PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect themselves and their patients from coronavirus. Keep your distance from pharmacy staff wherever possible and follow their instructions to keep everyone safe.

Do your bit to protect pharmacies

It's a worrying and frustrating time for everyone during the lockdown. But if we all play our part, we can make sure that pharmacies are able to carry on providing a safe and effective service and that people can get the medications they need.

  • Do not visit a pharmacy if you are experiencing symptoms of coronavirus (including fever and/or a cough). You should stay at home and self-isolate if you experience these symptoms. If you think you need to seek medical advice for your symptoms, use Patient's coronavirus checker to find out what to do next.
  • Do not over-order your prescriptions. To prevent shortages, order only what you need when you need it. Do not order your repeat prescription early or stockpile your drugs.
  • If you no longer need a prescription or medication, tell the pharmacist before it is dispensed to save the NHS time and money.
  • Be patient with pharmacists. They are working in incredibly difficult and stressful environments right now whilst still trying to deliver the best care possible. Medicines may take a little longer to be dispensed, but wait patiently.
  • Be aware that some items may be out of stock but pharmacies will do their best to replenish whatever they have as soon as they can. If there are limits in place on certain items, it's so that everyone can buy what they need.
  • You may have to queue to get into a pharmacy because they are limiting the number of people going in at one time. Make sure to observe social distancing (2-metre distance between you and another person) in the queue and inside the pharmacy.
  • Do not phone the pharmacy to check if a prescription is ready or an item is in stock. Keep the phone lines open for people who really need them.

What is it like to work in pharmacy during a pandemic?

"It is exhausting, frightening and bewildering," says Matharu. "There is so much to do that at times it becomes emotionally draining. I have had many pharmacists call me up in tears just needing an outlet to unload their real worries and concerns."

Despite the enormous pressure on them, those working in pharmacy are still stepping up to help their communities.

"We have to be there for our patients and communities - we can't let them down. Pharmacy teams have a real connection with their communities. A number of patients have personally thanked me for opening and helping them. I have heard of many similar stories across London."

Concerningly, not everyone is treating pharmacy staff with the respect they deserve. "There are increasing instances where people get aggressive and abusive. We need that to stop, it doesn't help anybody."

Personal protective equipment for pharmacy

Community pharmacists face a lot of uncertainty and worry during the pandemic. Whilst there is a shortage of protection and testing across many areas of the NHS, pharmacists have especially little access to the resources they need to continue caring for patients.

"It is worrying that community pharmacists have received limited personal protective equipment (PPE) or access to testing," says Matharu. "Our pharmacy teams feel that we don't have the support of the NHSE&I (NHS England and NHS Improvement) despite the warm words of the Prime Minister and Health Secretary. In addition, the counter staff who see the patients first are scared, not for themselves but for the children and elderly relatives they look after. If I'm honest we all are."

Pharmacy London is also calling on the government to abolish prescription charges during the pandemic. It says this would minimise handling of pens and paper prescriptions and prevent people who may suddenly have found themselves in financial difficulty struggling to afford medication.

It also has concerns about potentially unchecked volunteers being called on to deliver medications should the government call on the 'NHS volunteers' to deliver essentials to those who are classed as vulnerable and self-isolating.

"Despite all the uncertainty, our pharmacy teams find the resolve to come into work because it's important," explains Matharu. "Community pharmacies are the only ones that patients have face-to-face access to in the community. But I worry and find it difficult to sleep at night because, as Chair of Pharmacy London, I question whether we've thought of everything we can do to help. Can we do better? Have we overlooked anything?I have full faith in the community pharmacy teams to cope and be there for our patients."

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