The past two years have presented business and clinical challenges for rural, regional and remote community pharmacies that no amount of traditional planning and education could have properly prepared their pharmacists and pharmacy staff for.
From floods and fires to COVID-19, these pharmacies have had to adapt and pivot to meet the needs of their patients and communities.
Over the past two years they have worked under the most extreme circumstances to continue providing medicines, services and advice.
The pressure on these pharmacies has been intense as staff have worked – and continue to work – to provide the best possible healthcare treatment regardless of the environment in which they are operating.
A feature of this time is how these pharmacies have innovated and adapted their work practices and service delivery to be better equipped to negotiate their new environment and the evolving needs of their patients.
These include adopting new services and routines so that patients who are ill or isolated can continue to receive their medicines and other services.
Workflows have been adapted to provide a safe environment during COVID-19, delivery services developed to get medicines to isolated patients, and a whole range of innovations introduced so they can continue meeting the needs of their communities.
They have also gone above and beyond to look after communities in Australia.
During the fires they delivered medicines by jetski and boat, skirting around burning peninsulas to reach patients. Medicines were packed by candlelight and torch when power was cut.
During the floods we saw pharmacists hitching rides – again by jetski and boat – to get to flood-isolated pharmacies so they could open their doors to waiting patients. Stock shortages were addressed by pharmacies negotiating their own supply routes and collaborating with other pharmacies to borrow essential stock.
During COVID-19 they have delivered meals and other essentials to isolated patients.
And during COVID-19 and the fires and drought, they provided credit to those out of work, affected by the drought, or those whose credit cards and wallets had been lost.
These pharmacies stepped up to provide COVID-19 vaccination services, often opening later and extended hours so patients can fit their vaccinations in when it suits them. They and their metropolitan colleagues have provided some seven million vaccinations since mid last year, ensuring Australia can get back on its feet as soon as possible.
And, importantly, these pharmacies have remained open and accessible throughout all the amazing challenges, often when other health services have not been available. COVID-19, in particular, has seen them deal with staff and patient safety, social distancing, medicine shortages caused largely by panic buying, the need to stay open long hours, and with lockdowns and the drop in traffic which threatened the viability of many businesses.
It has been extremely difficult for the pharmacists and pharmacy staff.
They, at times, have faced unconscionable abuse from patients who were irate at stock shortages or waiting times for vaccination. And these pharmacies have also faced the same pressures their communities face – staff and family ill with COVID-19 and affected by fires and floods – but still they have maintained their services.
They are exhausted and increasingly are taking time to look after themselves. They recognise the importance of this and also that, if they don’t look after themselves, they can’t fully and effectively help their patients.
Yet they never falter, a commitment that prompted former Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, to comment: ‘Community pharmacies have been right at the front of the queue of the people who have protected Australia.’