Survival is about who adapts the best

Eoghan O’Brien tells Priyankur Mandav how he always employs a flexible, individualised approach to deliver better health outcomes for his patients.

Bannside Pharmacy, Portglenone, Co Antrim, NI.

Bannside Pharmacy is situated in the small town of Port glen one in Co Antrim, very close to some beautiful ancient woodland and stunning swathes of bluebells that bloom in spring.

A perfect setting for a stunning pharmacy that thrives on helping people make a difference to their quality of life. A well-being hub for the local community, Bannside offers a wide range of clinical and enhanced services, including a wide range of homeopathic and herbal medicines, with complementary therapy treatments.

Winner of Pharmacy Business of the Year Eoghan O’Brien with his wife.

As well as providing symptomatic relief from ill health, the pharmacy team try to help their patients identify lifestyle choices that can address the cause.

The owner, Eoghan O’Brien, loves “the strong connection” the pharmacy allows him to have with his local community. He is a forward-thinking professional who constantly explores ways to innovate service models to deliver better health outcomes for his patients.

Bannside’s journey began nearly sixty years ago when Eoghan’s late father, Colm, decided to start the pharmacy in 1960.

“My father was a very pragmatic businessman, more so than pharmacist. He grew up in poverty, had no shoes to wear to school and saved the bus fare to buy some food. It was tough time.

“He saw pharmacy as a way of feeding the family, and doing the best he could do financially for the family.”

Eoghan took over the reigns in 1993, four years after completing his pre-reg. The business since has grown rapidly.

“For me it was never the financial thing, it was healthcare and service to my local community. I just concentrate on doing the best I can do. I am always focused on – here’s what we have achieved now, how do we make that better, how do we improve, how do we actually make people feel better? That’s why I became a pharmacist.”

However, sourcing medicines at a competitive price is still one of the things that he finds most challenging even after 30 years.

“That is not why I became a pharmacist!” says Eoghan, who had always wanted to be one since his early teens.

“Add to that the funding cuts and their subsequent pressure and stress and the amount of paperwork we need to do for all the invoices and protocols – it’s a lot of hard work. But when you are passionate about something, you some how manage to find a way to overcome any challenges.”

Eoghan is someone who has always been interested in addressing the very causes of ill health. He says has learned a lot from patient interactions.

“I really started getting excited when medicines use reviews came to pharmacy. It allowed me a great opportunity to sit down with the patient and have a conversation about their health and medication needs. That in turn helped me develop my patient consultation techniques and build an ability to troubleshoot their health issues very rapidly.”

“I realised a few years ago that modifiable lifestyle choices (such as nutrition, physical activity and stress management) play a significant role in ill health.”

Rapid fire questions

What’s been the most important moment of your career in pharmacy?

Qualifying as a pharmacist. It’s all I have ever wanted to do from the age of 13.

What motivates you?

Positive feedback (and sometimes negative) from someone I have engaged with in the pharmacy.

Anyone you admire?

Anyone who selflessly cares for people.

There has been a lot of talk around stress in pharmacy? How do you cope with it?

Take a few deep breaths and focus on my breathing.

How do you unwind?

Cycling, running, yoga, meditation, playing traditional Irish music, having a chat with someone positive.

If you were to give up pharmacy tomorrow, what would you do?

(From left) Kalpesh Solanki, Ramniklal Solanki, Minister of State for Health
Edward Argar, Eoghan O’Brien, Barry Gardiner MP, Sarah-Jane Mee

It’s unlikely to happen as I enjoy it so much right now, but some thoughts are: perhaps a degree in nutrition, or setting up a music recording studio or
simply writing a book on health & well being.

An opportunity presented itself when a local club GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) ran a fitness and weight loss programme for Portlenone residents.

Three members of his pharmacy team, including himself, got involved in motivating the participants: giving nutritional advice and recording their weight each week. The very positive results with 1lb/week/ person on average weight loss inspired Eoghan to carry out his own initiative ‘Portglenone Gets Healthy’, encouraging participants to eat well, get active and visit the pharmacy for a weekly weight watch. The programme got support from the NPA’s Health Education Foundation bursary and the success prompted Eoghan to open it up to the wider community.

“I was able to tweak the programme. Change things around to fit into individual needs. A flexible, individualised approach is very important in healthcare because one size doesn’t fit all.

“It’s about having different conversations with different people – what do you want to do? How can you do that? How can we help you do that?

“They come back to see me and we talk about progress – what’s working and what’s not, what we need to change? It takes times but the end is very satisfying when a patient comes back and says, ‘I feel better now.’ That’s a real reward.”

In 2018, Bannside Pharmacy received funding from the Diabetes UK to run a 12-week programme for ten people with type 2 Diabetes. The initiative had remarkable success in reducing patients’ blood sugar levels and helping them lose weight and feel happier. Eoghan secured funding from Big Lottery the very next year to have a go again, and with resounding success.
He’s keen to develop this further with the aim of scale and spread. He is optimistic that he will receive the funding required to do so.

Eoghan is excited about the way service development is evolving and that is something he wants to help drive. He’s also about to embark on a CRP testing pilot for acute cough, which he believes will have excellent potential
in reducing unnecessary GP appointments and inappropriate antibiotic prescribing.

Deprescribing is also something he is enthusiastic about too “This may seem financially disadvantageous for a pharmacy contractor, but feeds well into service provision and most importantly – better patient outcomes,” he says.

But all this wouldn’t have been achievable without a very capable pharmacy team. Eoghan understands that his staff are his most valuable asset.

“It is important to keep in touch with all team members and try to involve them in the decision making process where possible.”

He believes appraisals are a very effective tool for allowing them the opportunity to talk to Eoghan confidentially and discuss how they can develop. He has an open-door policy encouraging them to talk to him if anything is bothering them, or if there is an idea they want to run with.

“Positive feedback is essential as well,” he adds.

Eoghan understands getting complacent (thinking everyone is fine) or taking your eye off the ball (which can happen when engrossed in a project or new service development) staff can become pressurised, stressed, undervalued and demotivated.

“Good communication is essential in avoiding this.”

His award-winning pharmacy is a model for the future of community pharmacy. Asked what’s his secret of running a successful pharmacy, Eoghan says, “it’s down to have your primary focus on what will most
improve the quality of life of each individual person entering your pharmacy. You also need a happy, motivated team. The people coming into our pharmacies are sensitive to this. Appropriate eye contact with and smiling at staff and customers. Using their names when talking to them. Keeping an eye on cash fl ow & overheads without being obsessive about it.”

Healthcare demands of the fast-approaching new millennium dictated a major refit in 1998, including the purchase of an adjacent building, which more than doubled the size of the pharmacy and added a consultation room – as well as two treatment rooms.

Eoghan’s Top Tips

  • Be person (patient/customer) focused. Engage with them at their level & ask them:
  • What they want to do to improve their health & well being
  • How they’re going to do it
  • To set targets
  • Record measurements that mean something to them
  • Follow them up to check progress
  • Build their confidence
  • Value your staff
  • Do what you love and love what you do

He did another refit 19 years later because “we needed to open up the dispensary to lose blind spots and make the staff more visible to customers.” This also meant visitors to the pharmacy became more visible to the staff too.

“As a result of this we now have wider aisle widths, a power assisted front door with grab rail and slip resistant tiles at its ramped entrance and a wheelchair accessible consultation room.”

When asked what his views were on Brexit, he bursts out in laughter and asked: “How can you have an opinion about something that changes on a minute by minute basis? There is nothing to have an opinion on. We don’t know what Brexit is although we know what it isn’t.

He chooses to reverse his opinion until he finds out what it is but adds: “We have always had crises and we have to adapt.This applies to pharmacy across the country. Survival is about who adapts the best. Community pharmacy needs to adapt.”