As GPs move to digital consultations in the battle against Covid-19, community pharmacies remain open as they deal with a huge increase in workload. Shanel Raichura looks at the implications for their enhanced role...
It is fair to say that community pharmacy has not moved at the same pace as other primary care services in embracing technology. But that is changing.
In response to the coronavirus crisis, GP practices are moving to telephone, video or online consultations at an unprecedented rate, and many have closed their doors entirely.
Community pharmacy is one of the last primary care services left where patients can walk in for health advice without an appointment.
But quite apart from the safety considerations, pharmacies are in real danger of being overwhelmed by demand from patients anxious for advice, or for medication following the huge increase in prescriptions issued by GPs since coronavirus struck.
What technology can pharmacists use to survive this crisis, and how can the profession best harness it to forge a new role when it is over?
The direct in-store relationship with patients has been a strength of community pharmacy, but it now needs to adapt to protect staff, manage workload and stay open for business.
Several IT suppliers have made video consultation software available free-of-charge to GPs during this critical period, and this is now happening in community pharmacy too.
Video is the ideal vehicle for safe conversations with patients, whether it is a discussion about coronavirus symptoms, a New Medicines Service consultation or a request for advice on weight or hair loss, or smoking cessation.
A growing number of young people are using pharmacy as their first port of call for general health advice, and video is intuitive for them.
Digital medicines management is another useful tool that is already being widely adopted. In England, for example, the electronic prescription service enables pharmacies to electronically send repeat prescription requests directly into the GP’s clinical system, removing the need for patients to visit the surgery.
While the pandemic is a human tragedy and a massive challenge for health services, I hope one good thing to come from it will be the rapid transformation of the role of community pharmacy into one that fully uses all our clinical skills.
The government has already recognised that it cannot rely on GPs and primary care nurses for everything. Now patients have realised it too. The current situation has brought that into sharp focus.
I see a future where technology enables independent community pharmacists to check and dispense scripts remotely, for example via the type of hub-and-spoke arrangements already enjoyed by the big multiples.
This will at last free up more of their time to spend with patients, for example for minor illness consultations. Many of these will be done remotely, some of them via mobile technology.
GPs, who have rapidly adapted to online consultations in this current crisis, are already indicating that they will not be going back to their old ways of working once it is over.
Pharmacy should adopt and adapt similarly. Our patients will demand it too.
Shanel Raichura is the clinical director of EMIS Health
Pic: alvarez (iStock)