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The truths of a horrific pandemic   

Covid-19 has been a catalyst for change in many areas but the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has been found wanting, says Mohammed Hussain...
 

For all its horror, Covid-19 has revealed some truths that are self-evident although overlooked by many: community pharmacy is and always has been a core part of primary care. 
 
While other parts of the NHS went into their own lockdown, community pharmacies remained open. We were – and still are - the front door to the NHS, true to our values of open to all, with access to a healthcare professional without an appointment. 
 
Yet Covid-19 has been a catalyst for change in many areas. The uptake of digital options by the NHS and patients has been supercharged by Covid and will not be reversed. Pharmacy has embraced this change with more items prescribed via the electronic prescription service than ever before, Electronic repeat dispensing, summary care records, NHS mail and Microsoft Teams have all been used to improve workflow and efficiency. 
 
IT has also allowed organisations to be more open by allowing colleagues and members to join meetings without the need for travel. This should be a great opportunity for member engagement but, alas, IT as an enabler is subservient an organisation’s culture. 
 
A case in point here would be the unedifying response from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on requests from members to attend the open business of the RPS Assembly. Even though the RPS’s own standing orders clearly allow members to join open business and have access to the papers, the RPS president Sandra Gidley persisted in arguing that members could not join. 
 
It was only after an online campaign by myself and other community-spirited members who believe the RPS belongs to the members, and not the president, that the decision was overturned by the chief executive Paul Bennett and members were finally allowed to observe the meeting online. 
 
The RPS constantly trumpets the rhetoric of openness and transparency but at every opportunity it chooses secrecy over openness, words over action and silence over engagement. 
 
As activists within the RPS, myself and others have been pressing the Society to take inclusion and diversity seriously. We know that there are real problems of inequality in our profession. Black and minority ethnic pharmacists are over-represented in fitness-to-practise cases, black candidates under-perform in the pre-reg exam, and BAME pharmacists endure a big ethnic pay gap when compared to their white counterparts. This is all before we consider the relative impact of Covid-19 on BAME individuals. 
 
Imagine our surprise when, in this context, the RPS decided to pause its inclusion strategy. We successfully managed to overturn this decision (a pattern of behaviour may be emerging here). The strategy has now been published and we continue to press the Society to translate words into actions and to do more. We await the data from the RPS that show the diversity characteristics of its membership. 
In short, 2020 has shown us that technology can be a catalyst for rapid and substantial changes to our daily lives but most of all, we have learned that culture is the most important ingredient to change. 
 
Covid-19 has revealed the essence of individuals and organisations. True to its core values and culture, community pharmacy placed its patients first, engaged with primary care teams and built stronger relationships with the communities it serves. 
 
Our professional leadership body has reverted to its instinctive values which have meant its first response is to reduce transparency. To get the best from the Society we need to change the culture. The Society should take a leaf out of community pharmacy's book. 
 

Mohammed Hussain is a non-executive director at Bradford Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust and an independent contractor. 

A response from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society

The president is fully committed to increasing the openness and transparency of both the Boards and Assembly meetings and has driven progress on this, supported by the chief executive.

As holding virtual Assembly meetings is new to RPS, we were concerned that the experience for members would not be as good as it should be, but there was no deliberate intention to exclude members from the meeting. The president led the decision to enable virtual attendance by members and it is false to claim that there was conflict within the organisation on this, or that at any point her decisions were ‘overturned’.

It is her stated ambition to see an increase in virtual attendance at both Board and Assembly meetings and to welcome even more members at these in the future.

We are fully committed to delivering our inclusion and diversity strategy. As soon as Covid struck we put all our energy into taking action to support pharmacists, including addressing the disproportionate risk that BAME pharmacists and their teams faced.

This meant the publication of the document had to wait until June. This work stream will benefit the whole profession, regardless of whether individuals are members of the RPS or not.

The Assembly has just agreed that we can collect data about our members’ protected characteristics to help us understand their needs and deliver for them in the best way possible.
 
 




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