Community pharmacy services keeping accessible healthcare at the heart of communities

By James McCaughan, Chair, Community Pharmacy NI

Looking back on part of ‘Ask Your Pharmacist Week’, pharmacies across Northern Ireland showcased the range and quality of care they provide on a daily basis to all of those within their communities. Of course, the week has also allowed time to reflect on the services provided by our community pharmacies throughout the fight against Covid-19.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has changed the face of community pharmacy. We are one of the key primary healthcare providers on the ground, ensuring that the safe supply of medicines is assured, and our patients and communities remain healthy and looked after. This is a role which we do not take lightly.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the community pharmacy workforce has stepped up to the mark and shown extraordinary strength and resilience under mounting pressure rarely experienced before.

We got back to our core service and adapted so that we could support our communities in the safest way possible. New measures had to be introduced quickly including screens and social distancing. Our working practices changed, literally overnight, and so did much of our lives. Hours increased, services changed, but the commitment of our local pharmacists remained. As an organisation, we are incredibly thankful for this.  

Moreover, as GPs became less accessible, local community pharmacies became the first port of call for anyone managing a lifelong condition or experiencing illness. From the beginning of the pandemic we have been inundated with patients, with local pharmacies across Northern Ireland seeing on average 40,000 more people per week. At several points we were seriously understaffed with 30% of pharmacists self-isolating, meaning those still working were doing 70-hour weeks.

Community Pharmacists have proven their valuable role during this time. During a period of uncertainty and fear, they have been a steady hand of reassurance, advice, and support for many people, including some of the most vulnerable in our local communities. I am proud of the work of my colleagues who stepped up to the plate when they were called upon.

In addition this year, we have focused on the expansion of our services within public health, including the free winter flu vaccine service offered to all health and social care staff, the Minor Ailments Service and the Pharmacy First programme. All of these services are working to ease pressures across the health service, allowing our HSC colleagues in areas such as GP surgeries and Emergency Departments to focus on critical patients and work towards ensuring accessible services are provided within all our communities.

Moving into winter, we are calling on everyone to pull together and work with us so we can continue to serve and provide for our communities with the same high standard of service delivered up to this point.

Whilst this period presents us with additional challenges in terms of services, we remain as committed and driven as ever to continue to help those who need us. Covid-19 has shown that the Northern Ireland health service is strong and resilient, but it is not unbreakable. We need to all work together and meet these challenges together and united.

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