Community pharmacist Reena Barai is an NPA board member

By Reena Barai

‘Thanks for the EY report.’

Why am I saying thanks? As an independent contractor, I often find myself feeling quite alone with my worries and concerns about my business. Since the funding cuts in particular, the squeeze has been tough and I have hated having to ask myself questions like ‘can I afford this, is this worth it and have I got a future?’ I have to admit to even contemplating selling my beloved pharmacy.

When I read the results of the EY report, it was like a weight was lifted in a way as the findings highlighted that my concerns were indeed very real, and sadly, I am not alone in my fears and worries about my future.

  • 52 per cent of pharmacy owners have contemplated selling
  • 28 – 38 per cent of the network is in financial deficit
  • 87 per cent of pharmacies report they can’t afford to take on more staff

I’m sure every pharmacy owner probably read these stats and nodded in agreement.

More recently, during this pandemic, I have worked harder than I have ever done before in my whole career and yet, I have increasingly been questioning ‘can I do anymore?’. I feel like it is physically impossible for me to do anymore, I already work more than my core hours, six days a week on my feet, serving patients  and  spend a considerable part of my Sunday doing paperwork. I also ask myself ‘should I do anymore?’.

I was interested to hear Simon Dukes’s comments recently when he suggested that pharmacy owners should start to look at and maybe re-consider services they provide for free. It’s such a hard business decision, isn’t it?

I myself have grown my business and patient goodwill by going above and beyond all the time, in fact, I pride myself on this. I always feel grateful that my patients choose my pharmacy over the many they could go to, both locally and online.

Pharmacy philanthropist

Has the time come now to re-assess the goodwill I create if there isn’t anything in it for me that brings money into the business? This doesn’t sit easily with me as a healthcare professional as, if I could, I would want to do everything I do and more for free. I’d love to be a community pharmacy philanthropist. If I ever won the lottery, I would so become one!

These are the issues that I think many of my contractor colleagues are facing and the dilemmas they are pondering. Is it fair that we even have to have these concerns in the first place?

I can’t think of many other healthcare professionals who go to sleep worrying about these problems. So I’m grateful to the EY report as I think it has given the sector a wake-up call. Now we need to consider how do we move forward without putting up the ‘for sale’ sign when the EY report paints a picture of doom and gloom?

Plan of action

Here is what I am planning to do:

  • Get a firm grip on my business finances – Now accounting and economics have never been my forte but I recognise I need to understand my business well and monitor the variables. Many of us constantly dip into hard-earned savings to bail us out of tight cashflow situations and yet, there will come a point when this is unsustainable and we all need to know where this point of maybe no return is for our businesses, so that we don’t find ourselves in financial difficulty.
  • Look at different streams of income – I have always been keen to be an NHS provider, but I recognise now this is not enough. There are many private services that I intend to explore and start offering. There must be more I can do to advertise my business and market the services we offer and increasing the social media profile of my business is high on my agenda. I’m also trying to work out how, in an increasingly digital and impersonal world, I can capitalise on that face-to-face personal offering and differentiate myself from the online competition.
  • Use the EY report to make contact with the ‘powers that be’ – This report produced by a reputable firm is one that simply can’t be ignored. I have written to my local MP to ask for a meeting to discuss the findings and share my personal story. I have also got the support of local contractors who’ve agreed to join me at this meeting so we can all share our concerns. It is important to influence the potential decision makers, something we take for granted and assume someone else will do on our behalf. Plus, it will be important to paint the picture of what society in general will lose if the network of bricks and mortar pharmacies inevitably closes. From the loss of the social capital in high streets and parades to the increased demand on already stretched NHS services, these are all real consequences of losing the local pharmacy.
  • Engage my patients – During the funding cuts, I was able to rally my patients with the petition and conversations we had with all of them about the potential impact of funding cuts. Since then, my patients have a new found empathy towards me and my team. There has to be a way to engage this patient support again. Our patients are our biggest advocates, and we must make sure they always fight our corner and support us.
  • Not stop doing what I do best – I will not compromise on the care I give and show my patients which actually costs me next to nothing, but has immeasurable worth. When times are tough, it can be hard to go that extra mile without feeling resentful, which I recognise and so, this is why I have made it the one thing I won’t compromise on.

Reena Barai is an NPA board member and owner of SG Barai Pharmacy in Sutton.

This exclusive article also appears in the print edition of Pharmacy Business/October 2020.

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