Ali Sparkes with her Pharmacy Business award.

Pharmacist Ali Sparkes was chuffed to bits when a patient recently told her: “Coming to you is like coming to see the family.”

She calls this her “social capital.”

In 30 years as a pharmacist she has seen the sector evolve, but the one thing that has remained unchanged, according to her, is people’s love for their local pharmacy. Most pharmacists know their communities very well and they can have a huge influence on local health.

“People trust their pharmacists – especially their clinical skills. Pharmacies existed long before the creation of NHS as the first port of call for healthcare. People still perceive us the same way. We just need to continue being there when people need us.”

A bookworm since early childhood, Ali loved her sciences and knew she wanted to become a pharmacist at the tender age of 11. Over the years though her views have shifted from a more clinical to a holistic approach.

Ali Sparkes is Director of the Health Dispensary.

“My time served in the NHS and on many professional advisory bodies has shown there are many who believe we need a more holistic preventative view of health. Even the most sceptic of medics would agree that anything that enhances a person’s sense of wellbeing and self-efficacy must be a good thing.

“From my personal perspective, I know that complementary therapies have helped hugely where western medicine has fallen short. I now have a much greater awareness of how my body works and firmly believe in an integrated holistic view to health using the best of modern science and traditional knowledge.”

Her ‘best of two worlds’ approach was at the heart of Ali’s decision to remodel her pharmacy in Neath, South Wales as The Health Dispensary – much bigger in scope than an average pharmacy yet one that would carry all “the values and ethos” of a traditional pharmacy.

It was rebranded in 2016 when it incorporated the health and wellness unit next door. It had been owned by the pharmacy for four years. However, not until the units were knocked through did it really become a community pharmacy with a difference. The pharmacy now offers an extensive range of natural remedies along with complementary health and wellness treatments.

Aside from the day to day activity of a traditional dispensing chemist, the pharmacy provides a range of complementary therapies via independent practitioners who offer acupuncture, aromatherapy, osteopathy, massage, reiki and reflexology. It also offers health checks for diabetes, cholesterol, blood pressure, heart risks; talking therapies like counselling and hypnotherapy; weight loss services with advice on body composition, lipotrim, diet support; vaccination and travel medicines services.“

We are committed to promoting self-care and what I call ‘feel-good living’. While dispensing tablets and medicine, we are also keen to advise on alternative treatment options. A good pharmacist should not only treat many conditions before it’s too late but also try to prevent wherever possible,” she says.

The Health Dispensary operates like a one-stop-shop, an all-in-one pharmacy. A year ago, Ali invested in a robotic dispenser which has allowed her patients to order and collect repeat prescriptions round the clock. It’s the first and the only one at an independent community pharmacy in Wales.

“That’s because we look to technology as a solution to all sorts of problems, with life getting ever so busier these days. It gives our patients far more flexibility to collect prescriptions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It helps staffing as well by reducing the number of manual transactions that we need to do on a daily basis. It has made the pharmacy calmer again. We have more time to advise people, more time for clinical activities and more time to be supportive of our patients.”

Ali spends a lot of her time studying marketing and exploring new ways to engage people online.

She says she is “still learning how to integrate it to our CRM system and online booking system. We’re trying lots of different methods too to see what works best. Leaflets on bags and word of mouth still feature heavily!”

Ali posing for a group photo with her team outside The Health Dispensary.

She is a strong believer of social media which she has been using effectively as a marketing tool as it gives her team the opportunity to interact directly with customers and regularly share relevant product and service information. From a pharmacist’s perspective, the beauty of platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is that they make it easier for patients and customers to share information with their entire network, increasing the reach of the pharmacy exponentially.

“Positive psychology is all over our social media. When people visit the pharmacy for an NHS prescription or OTC sale, our aim is to introduce them to other more natural ways of looking after their health, whether that be foods, holistic therapies or, most importantly, the way we think about our lives and health. Our message has always been about positive thinking – combining mind and body.”

Looking into mental health as another area to explore, Ali sponsored a PhD student last year to introduce mental health interventions to the practice and see the feasibility of rolling it out to other community pharmacies. She says this is “an exciting development for the Pharmacy world, the staff at The Health Dispensary and the community of Neath to promote positive wellbeing.”

“Our natural healthcare approach is not just a bolt-on money-making venture but core to who we are and what we do. Our USP is in offering professional advice on natural products and therapies.”

Dietary supplements and natural health products are occupying more and more shelf space these days as they are being marketed as being safe and effective, and without the laundry list of side effects. But when patients ask the pharmacist for recommendation, what is the best practice?

Ali says: “Both our pharmacists are great advocates of natural healthcare so it means we can give a professional view, checking any interactions with traditional or prescription medicines and an opinion on its evidence base. It’s about helping patients make the best decision for themselves.

“There are medicines which do a very important job: preserve and save life. But a lot of natural products can be very good for health promotion. If the patient prefers a more natural product, we take on board their beliefs and try to give them proper advice. But we are always very careful to say, ‘look this is the evidence to support the claim’. We are always very balanced in our opinion. To me, if something hasn’t got clinical evidence, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t work. It’s just that the research on it hasn’t taken place.

“As long as you are honest with people and tell them what the actual facts are and they want to try something, you can’t go far too wrong.”

Ali couldn’t help but share with me a quote she loves by the American writer, Anne Lamott: “Lighthouses don’t go running over an island looking for boats to save, they just stand there shining brightly.” Ali thinks of pharmacies as the lighthouses for the community – full of appreciation, care and empathy!

She is proud of continuing the legacy of independent pharmacy. She strongly believes that having “empathy for our patients and customers makes us better human beings and better professionals.”

Pharmacy Business Natural Healthcare Pharmacy Award

This article also appears in the September issue of Pharmacy Business.

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