How are our pharmacists coping?

Four chemists speak about how they, their staff and their patients are dealing with Covid-19

‘Pharmacists are so accessible for the public and, in times like this, our accessibility is a unique asset,’ says Tomás Conefrey of  Conefrey’s Pharmacy, Pearse St, Dublin. Photograph: iStock

‘Pharmacists are so accessible for the public and, in times like this, our accessibility is a unique asset,’ says Tomás Conefrey of Conefrey’s Pharmacy, Pearse St, Dublin. Photograph: iStock

 

As one of the first points of contact in the healthcare system, pharmacists are shoring up the frontline during the unprecedented public health emergency that is Covid-19. Yet, like many others, the virus has transformed the way they are working.

The Irish Times spoke to four community pharmacists based in different areas of the country to find out how they, their staff, and their patients are coping with the coronavirus outbreak.

Tomás Conefrey – Conefrey’s Pharmacy, Pearse St, Dublin

“Everything has changed. We now have restrictions on the number of people who can come in but customers have been so good, they don’t mind queuing outside, even though I thought it was going to be a problem.

“Stockpiling has been a bit of an issue for us, I have had a few confrontations with people about it. I had a man who wanted three months’ supply of his medication and no way was he leaving without it. We really had it out. I think that will be on ongoing problem for us as this thing continues.

“Our retail sales are way down. People are in buying over-the-counter medications and prescriptions and hand sanitiser, but they’re not buying things like skincare, for example. The male grooming section has fallen off a cliff.

“Pharmacists are so accessible for the public and, in times like this, our accessibility is a unique asset. We are on the high street, we all know our customers and it gives them that bit more reassurance.

“The staff working in the pharmacy have been helping with deliveries to people in the locality and I am very fortunate. But as it continues it will become more difficult to fund that – a grant from Government would help. Things are happening. Now doctors can send us valid prescriptions through Healthmail. I thought that was genius and we need more of that kind of thinking. The system is quite rigid and it’s rigid for good reason, but little tweaks to it will help get us through the next couple of months.”

Caitríona O’Riordan – O’Riordan’s Pharmacy in Enniskeane, Co Cork

“We are healthcare professionals and at the frontline in the community. It hit us early and it hit us hard. I could have done with 20 different phone lines – and 20 of me – over the past few weeks.

“Before all this we would have had really good footfall and had people constantly coming in picking up bits and pieces. But a few weeks ago, I had to commission a carpenter to build a safety screen at my front door. Now people speak to me through the Perspex screen and there’s a hatch at waist level where I can pass products to them. Being honest, that was a very emotional decision to make. It has had a massive effect on business but at the end of the day you have to put safety first. We put little funny video clips on our social media about it so people didn’t come to the door and get a fright.

“It has been stressful and every day, at least one of us cries. So much is going on in our rural community – we have had babies born, we have had miscarriages, we have had to bury people and all of that has been so complicated. In raw situations like that, everything is accentuated.

“I work in community pharmacy because I like people and I want to help them; it’s just been a very emotional time for everyone involved. One of my big concerns, however, is the viability of the business, despite us being an essential service. We have had additional costs in terms of shop fit-out and delivery services, and overheads remain the same, but turnover is way down. The small independent pharmacies may not survive.”

Margaret O’Doherty – Raphoe Pharmacy in Co Donegal

“I have been a pharmacist for 35 years and nothing could compare to this. You think you’ve seen it all and then this comes along. The biggest change for us is that we have closed the doors completely and can’t allow customers in at all because social distancing just didn’t work in our fairly small space. We have also reorganised the whole shop so that staff aren’t working on top of one another, which was a problem as we had a small dispensary.

“We could only do that because our retail business basically doesn’t exist any more. We are mostly just interacting with our patients by phone. It’s very difficult when you are used to dealing with people face to face.

“Most people do have friends and family to help them out, but we are arranging deliveries for some older people who are cocooning. It’s hard for them because some people are very private about their medicines, they don’t want just anyone bringing them their medication. You have to be quite discreet and confidential.

“We have chemo patients and palliative care patients; they are all still out there and need to be taken care of, you have to ensure they don’t get lost in all of this. Every single local business has been pulling together to make sure people don’t lose out, from the pharmacist, the GP, the greengrocers, the butchers. This time has shown the importance of local communities and local businesses.

“We are only a few miles from the Border and that’s very concerning. They seem to be very relaxed, we have had lots of people coming across to visit Donegal beaches. This disease does not recognise borders.”

Anna Kelly – Anna Kelly Pharmacy in Nenagh, Co Tipperary

“Our typical day is totally altered. We had a member of staff who had to self-isolate after returning from Spain, so we benefitted from the Covid-19 pandemic payment then. The day after St Patrick’s Day, I split the day into two shifts in case one of us got the virus and the rest had to isolate. This is strange for us because we are a good team who works well together.

“It’s really draining as nobody has any downtime any more. You have the feeling that everyday runs into the other. You are constantly worrying if everyone is okay – the staff, the customers. I am a pharmacist, an employer and a mother and I am worried about everyone’s safety.

“The local GAA club is doing deliveries for us for vulnerable people and I know them because my son plays with them, so it’s working well. Lots of family and neighbours are collecting for people but there are those who don’t have the wider support.

“Communication for me is the big thing, I really miss the visual. There is no fun any more; there’s no interaction with customers. Only one or two come in at a time but I shout at my staff if I see them standing too close. It’s so rude but you just have to. Patients have been great but we have to explain that we are trying to keep the island safe, and not the individual. You have to tell them they can’t have extra medicines, or that they can’t collect them early.

“Long term, I hope we can go back to having more time with our patients. That’s the reason I go to work every day.”

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