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Opinion Giving pharmacists greater powers to help patients should be a no-brainer

With proper support, pharmacists could play a greater role in alleviating pressure on the healthcare system.

LAST WEEK, a first-time mother walked into my pharmacy with her sniffly and feverish baby. I was able to reassure her that it was most likely to be a simple cold virus that would pass in a couple of days and there was no need to go to her local GP or Emergency Department unless the baby’s condition deteriorated.

The day after, a woman from the local area popped into the store for some advice about a mole on her shoulder. I could see that it had none of the warning signs to be worried about and that she didn’t need to see a specialist. Instead, I advised her on some simple precautions to take, and to have her GP take a look at it at her next regular check-up.

The same day a girl was in with a rash on the back of her neck, I suspected it was shingles, and said that she should see a doctor immediately. She saw a GP that day who confirmed my suspicion, and she started anti-viral tablets. The prompt treatment gave her a much better chance of recovery with no complications.

Another customer of mine – an elderly gentleman – has been a regular for years. In addition to dispensing his medication each month, I chat to him about his general wellbeing and fitness, and he regularly asks me for dietary and lifestyle advice.

The stories of these customers demonstrate the breadth of services and supports offered by pharmacists in communities throughout Ireland every day. Pharmacists don’t just read prescriptions and dispense drugs; we also advise customers who come to us with healthcare queries; explain to them how their medication works; and provide general tips on leading a healthy lifestyle. That’s not to mention the many pharmacies that run “extra” activities, such as smoking cessation programmes, asthma clinics and weight loss initiatives.

Unfortunately, the work of pharmacists – and the important role they play in the wider healthcare system – has never been sufficiently understood, acknowledged or supported by successive Governments.

Cutbacks have directly impacted on patient care

A survey of Irish pharmacists was carried out over the past fortnight by the healthcare software solutions company Helix Health, which sponsors the annual Pharmacist Awards. Its results show Irish pharmacists are struggling to cope in the face of recent cutbacks, and feel poorly supported by Government.

Some 86% of pharmacists surveyed said Government cutbacks have directly impacted on their ability to look after patients. When asked about the challenges pharmacists currently face, 64% saw government cutbacks as their biggest challenge, with 28% believing it to be the increase in the number of customers in financial difficulty.

In addition to asking pharmacists about the challenges they currently face, the Helix Health survey also looked at potentially enhanced roles for pharmacists. When questioned on what enhanced roles they would like to see for pharmacists, 46% of survey respondents said they would like to see pharmacists empowered to undertake medication usage reviews, while 45% of respondents want an enhanced role for pharmacists in chronic illness management for conditions such as diabetes.

Giving pharmacists greater powers in relation to medication usage reviews and chronic illness management should be a no-brainer. Currently, our healthcare system is over-stretched, under-resourced and not delivering the type of tailored supports that patients need. If pharmacists were empowered and resourced to undertake medication usage reviews – as happens in the UK and other countries – it would alleviate pressure on GPs and ensure better outcomes for patients.

Patients’ first port of call

Likewise, if pharmacists’ role as a first port of call for those with minor illnesses was better promoted and supported by government, there would be positive knock-on implications for the wider healthcare system, as fewer sick people would go directly to their GP or an Emergency Department as a result. The Government has thus far failed to recognise the potential that exists for pharmacists to ease some of the burdens on the healthcare system. It is high time their range of responsibilities was enhanced, and the important role they play was acknowledged publicly.

At present, the sterling work done by pharmacists throughout Ireland is acknowledged by initiatives like the Helix Health Pharmacist Awards. These awards – which take place each year – raise much-needed funds for the Pharmacy Benevolent Fund charity, and also present an opportunity to shine a spotlight on pharmacists doing great work across a range of categories.

In addition to Helix Health, sponsors of the 2014 Awards include TEVAPinewood HealthcareKrKa PharmaceuticalsLundbeck and JPA Brenson Lawlor.

Fintan Moore is a pharmacist and the Chairman of the Organising Committee for the Helix Health Pharmacist Awards 2014.

The closing date for receipt of nominations to the 2014 Helix Health Pharmacist Awards is 30 July. Further details about the Helix Health Pharmacist Awards are available at and @PharmacistAward

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