The coronavirus pandemic will lead community pharmacy into becoming the healthcare hub of the future, a leading pharmaceutical professional has said.

Managing Director of Alliance Healthcare UK Julian Mount believes in a post-Covid world more remote interactions from doctors and hospitals will be the order of the day, making community pharmacy the first in line for face-to-face healthcare advice.

“If there is a positive experience with Covid-19, it’s the positivity there is now around having that healthcare hub within the community,” he said at Pharmacy Business’ second virtual roundtable entitled ‘Reimagining community pharmacy in a post-Covid world’.

The roundtable delved into the future of pharmacy from the perspectives of a pharmacy wholesaler, an independent contractor and an owner of a chain of community pharmacies.

It explored how a hugely positive public perception, renewed national recognition and changed attitude from the powers that be could reinvigorate community pharmacy as well as how the sector needed to adapt in the rapidly changing world of technology.

The three-member panel, which also included chief executive of PCT Healthcare Peter Cattee and Sutton contractor Reena Barai, felt that community pharmacy should build on the positivity it now has but the onus of continuing that momentum would be on the national pharmacy bodies.

The sector should be very proud of the way it handled the Covid-19 crisis, said Mount, noting: “It was a Herculean effort by community pharmacy, I genuinely think community pharmacy can be so proud.”

He added that what community pharmacy has shown during the first spike of coronavirus bodes well for the sector – “stepping up selflessly” to offer valuable services, despite struggling with cash flow and other issues.

Mount believes community pharmacy will witness a similar demand in the winter months as the nation battles with a “very heavy flu season” as well as a potential second spike of Covid-19, in addition to going through the Brexit rigmarole.

That is why, Mount thinks, “community pharmacy now at a national negotiating level should be saying to government: ‘Look, we’ve proved ourselves in the initial spike of Covid-19 and in what we can provide in terms of community health. You will need us going forward, you will desperately need us to manage a second spike and flu’.”

National pharmacy bodies will need to make sure that they are seeking that recognition in the best way possible with the strongest arguments possible, he said.

Cattee, who chairs the PSNC’s funding and contract subcommittee, said community pharmacy went into the coronavirus crisis “with a big heart” and a “complete naivety with regard to the economics” of what it could mean for the sector.

“Pharmacy was difficult before we went into the crisis economically, it’s even more complex now. To ask for this money back rapidly seems to be completely unreasonable,” he said, referring to the £370 million coronavirus cash advance for pharmacy.

“We pride ourselves on understanding the underlying economics of our own business. And it’s never been harder. There are new variables with regard to the volume of prescription, but the distribution of prescriptions has changed,” he added.

For pharmacist Barai, the coronavirus pandemic, despite all its struggles, did one huge favour – it made her realise a long-held dream.

“I’ve always dreamt of having queues outside my pharmacy and for once in my life, I had them and still do, and that’s been really amazing to see actually,” she divulged at the roundtable.

Despite unprecedented footfall in the early months of the pandemic, it has been far from plain sailing for Barai, who owns and runs an independent community pharmacy.

She said: “I’m exhausted. I think a lot of my independent colleagues will feel the same. It’s been absolutely crazy.

“One of the things that we found quite challenging for ourselves as a team was to make sure that we were on top of it, all the knowledge, and up to date with all the latest guidelines coming through and in those early days, you’d remember, things were changing every day, opinions were changing, thoughts were changing, and that was quite tough for pharmacy teams like mine.”

“And the way we’ve dealt with it had been to forward plan, think ahead, and, you know, I didn’t think about anything apart from rising to the challenge.

“I didn’t think twice about keeping my pharmacy open. I don’t think twice about you know, I never thought about shutting my doors.

Barai said her team adapted “to keep our patients safe.”

“We’ve done all of that selflessly without thinking twice about it, without asking for anything in return. And I feel very proud of the way we’ve done that.”

Cattee, who owns a total of 118 pharmacies up and down the country and has been a pharmacist for nearly 40 years, recalled a similar experience to that of Barai.

“I’ve been a contractor since 1981 and I’d never known anything which came anywhere near like this and just the sudden uptake in volume of dispensing, which hit us like a tidal wave in the branches, whilst at the same time having to cope with lockdown, shielding, more than doubling rate of staff absenteeism, principally because of shielding and a host of other features, mad phone calls from MPs complaining about the length of queues outside our branches on the first day the crisis struck.

“But overall, I’ve been massively proud of both our own staff and the wider community pharmacy network in the way they kept the service going. So many people just went so far beyond anything we could have hoped or expected. If we’d sat and thought about this before it happened because it was just impossible to plan.”

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