Pharmacist Support needs to generate more funding otherwise pharmacists could find themselves without a charity to turn to in troubled times, says Danielle Hunt. Its chief executive talks to Neil Trainis…
There is something apt about the hurly-burly of commuters darting in and out of Euston Station as a backdrop for a discussion on the mental health of community pharmacists and the pressures they continue to face in a strained NHS.
In a nearby coffee shop sits Danielle Hunt, the chief executive of Pharmacist Support, the charity that provides support and financial assistance to pharmacists and their families, former pharmacists and pharmacy students in times of need.
She joined Pharmacist Support in January after 10 years at Keep Britain Tidy where she oversaw its transition from a government-funded charity to a self-funded one following ministers’ decision to withdraw a central grant for a number of charities.
The prospect of moving to Pharmacist Support, which she concedes needs to find new sources of funding to keep going, proved irresistible, not least because there was a familiarity about the challenge that would face her.
“I think it was the fact that Keep Britain Tidy had been through a similar journey as Pharmacist Support. Currently at Pharmacist Support, the demand is greater than the income,” she says.
“We’ve got an issue there with ‘what do we do for the future’ because if we continue doing what we’re doing, the charity won’t be here. We want to help as many people as possible.
“At Keep Britain Tidy, I was there for 10 years and during that time they lost all their funding. It was a massive organisation that lost about 70% of the workforce and what we needed to do was look at our strategy and say ‘what are we here to do, how are we going to fund it and how are we going to get there?’
“Although it was absolutely awful, it was actually really exciting and I think I realised quite quickly that side of things and we turned it around.
“I wasn’t actually looking around that much and this opportunity just came across my desk. As I was reading it, the trustees at Pharmacist Support had been really honest about the challenge facing it and as I was reading it, I was thinking ‘this sounds very familiar.’
“It just seemed like a natural step and it seemed that all the things I’d learnt over my time at Keep Britain Tidy would really translate.”
Her suggestion that Pharmacist Support will cease to exist “if we continue doing what we’re doing” feels dreadful given her awful revelation that one individual who contacted the charity this year was suicidal. She thinks the individual was a registered pharmacist.
“The trend that we’ve seen and the trend that we’ve heard from people who take the calls day to day is we’re getting a lot more complex calls, a lot longer calls, more distressing calls.
“I think there’s a trend and we need to keep an eye on that demand because as funding decreases in lots of different places, we get an increase in demand because there’s less public services available, particularly around mental health, stress, well-being.
“So we’ve just seen the nature of some of our calls change, not necessarily the volume go up, but more complex, longer calls.
We do get high volumes of calls but we can have one of our members of staff on the phone for an hour dealing with somebody to try and get them to the point where they can signpost them or get them the right level of service.”
Danielle is asked if suicidal pharmacists contact Pharmacist Support for help.
“Yes. I mean these are not daily phone calls (from people who have) hit rock-bottom but we have had those calls. Since I joined, I know of one that we’ve had and we had to intervene and put appropriate measures in place.
“We don’t know if they are practising, they don’t always tell us. Our criteria is that they’ve been a pharmacist or former pharmacist. We don’t say ‘are you on the register right this minute, where are you?’ But it is very likely they were a registered pharmacist.”
Desperation is not reserved for pharmacists who call Pharmacist Support. Pharmacy owners too have encountered despair, with some resorting to remortgaging their homes to keep their pharmacies afloat.
“I think what we’re seeing an increase in, and it’s quite a new trend, are pharmacy owners ringing us up and not quite knowing where else to turn to because financially, they are in a mess,” Danielle says.
“They might remortgage their homes, so it’s providing, not necessarily a grant, but advice. We refer them on to specialist advice and that’s been quite distressing because we’ve seen an increase in calls from individuals.
“I think it’s because, as the cuts have come in, people have got on with it, remortgaged, done things to keep them going and some are at crisis point now where all the money has gone, ‘can we open the doors tomorrow?’
“We have seen an increase in that type of call that we weren’t getting 10 years ago. It’s something quite new the team are seeing.”
A glimpse into the type of calls Pharmacist Support receives makes it unthinkable that pharmacists and pharmacy owners could ever be without a charity to call on.
Danielle insists there are “lots of different avenues where we could increase our funding.” The Cameron Fund, the GPs’ equivalent charity, is not funded by the government but receives donations from local medical committees (LMCs) among others.
Since its formation in 1970, the Fund has distributed nearly £4.5 million in grants and loans. Last year, it authorised grants and loans totalling almost £320,000 to 191 GPs and their dependants.
Pharmacist Support, Danielle reveals, gets no donations from local pharmaceutical committees (LPCs) although she says she would be prepared to ask them for financial assistance.
“Already, we’ve started conversations with a few LPCs on live and well-being workshops because we see these as a good way to get in there because we, as a small charity, can’t talk to every single pharmacist.
“If we don’t use existing networks, we’re missing a trick, so for us any organisations that bring pharmacists together are useful.”
The Cameron Fund welcomes referrals from LMCs. One wonders if LPCs refer troubled pharmacists to Danielle’s team.
“We get referrals from all sorts of places but what we’ve been doing with the LPCs is running wellbeing workshops. There’s definitely more links to be made but we’ll take referrals from anywhere.
“We don’t find out where the referrals come from. The individual contacts us and because of the confidential nature of some of the issues, they don’t like to talk about where they’ve come from or any of that professional side of things, so it does make it difficult because, although we’ve got a wealth of data, lot’s of people don’t give us the information we ask for. They probably just feel uncomfortable.”
Danielle is asked if LPCs should be making more effort to refer pharmacists.
“There’s a responsibility on all of us to partner up better and push people to the charity because it’s for everybody’s benefit.
“Everybody in all the organisations has a responsibility to share information about the charity when they see it’s needed because it’s a free service for pharmacists. That one call could make all the difference.”
She says the Royal Pharmaceutical Society does not provide funding to Pharmacist Support but does “provide support for some of our fundraising activities.”
A lack of donations overall, she suggests, could be down to a lack of awareness of the charity.
Market research it recently carried out revealed that six out of 10 pharmacists did not know Pharmacist Support existed and 97% of all those surveyed said they would need the services it provides “in some way.” She briefly ponders the types of calls it receives.
“We get all sorts of things. At the top of our survey we’ve just carried out, stress impacting on their well-being was coming out as the highest thing. Financial assistance and some of the other things we offer are much lower down in their priorities.
“So we can definitely see that stress impacting on people’s well-being is the thing that pharmacists are saying they need the most help with.”
Pharmacist Support, Danielle asserts, also suffers from a “chronic misunderstanding about what we do” as well as a lack of awareness.
“We don’t currently (receive much revenue from donations) but it’s something we’re hoping to grow. It’s a relatively new income stream for the charity. But we need to increase the awareness.
“In our strategy, there’s work for us to do in making the charity more relevant for pharmacists day to day because of the pharmacists we did talk to, a lot of them talked about the charity as, not the last resort, but people in crisis.
“Actually, a lot of the services would help pharmacists day to day and if pharmacists could see how relevant it is day to day, it would help increase awareness.”
A lack awareness of Pharmacist Support is as perplexing as it is troubling given the charity celebrated its 175th year in 2016, although Danielle insists more time is needed to raise its profile tellingly.
“It’s really challenging coming from a charity with such high brand profile. It takes a lot to get there, 10 years to build a profile and a brand.
“So there’s definitely more we can do in the next 10 years to raise the profile. I don’t think it’s anything anybody’s done, I just think it takes time.”