Pharmacists are holding up well during the coronavirus crisis. After a peak of pharmacy visits in recent weeks, the frequency of visits remains high but is levelling off. Due to the high number of visits, a doubling of extra telephone calls, the loss of colleagues and the mental and physical impact of the epidemic, the pressure on pharmacists is particularly high. In addition, their care function has expanded considerably due to a fall in the number of people visiting their general practitioner.
These are among the findings of the latest survey, conducted between 30 March and 3 April, in the Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s barometer assessing the impact of Covid-19 on Belgian pharmacies. The barometer is an initiative of Professor Eline Tommelein of VUB’s Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, who has been monitoring the situation since 15 March. The latest survey evaluated the situation among 637 pharmacies and just over 2,000 pharmacists. The results are shared with Sciensano and VIVEL, the Flemish Institute for Primary Health Care.
Pharmacists in Belgium have quickly adapted to help patients safely, so they can continue to give informed advice and provide medication. Despite the fact that several pharmacies have staff absent, all but a few sites are open.
However, pressure has increased significantly during this period. Pharmacists have had to take over tasks from colleagues who must stay at home, and there are many extra tasks such as frequent disinfection and answering telephones. Those surveyed indicate that two out of three patient visits are corona-related, but 40% of those visits are not essential.
“After a serious increase in pharmacy visits in previous weeks, we now see a return to a normal – and even slightly reduced – frequency of visits. The number of telephone calls, however, is considerably higher, more than doubling for most pharmacies. This goes up to an average of almost 30 telephone calls per day,” says Prof Tommelein.
Mentally and physically under pressure
She also notes that pharmacists’ mental health requires extra attention. For example, one in 10 indicate that they are under a lot of mental and physical pressure, with many reporting extra anxiety when practising their profession.
“Through this monitoring, we try to support pharmacists who indicate that there is a problem. Sometimes we can solve a practical problem, or a phone call is enough to offer support. In any case, we need to keep a close eye on the mental and physical health of the pharmacists,” says Prof Tommelein.
Shortage of masks is acute
“It’s admirable to see how the pharmacists have taken the necessary hygienic measures in a short space of time,” she adds. The study shows that after two weeks of the lockdown, hygiene measures have been fully implemented in almost all pharmacies. “And this is mainly due to the pharmacists themselves, who took proactive measures long before there were official guidelines.”
In most pharmacies there are plexiglass screens, and customers are asked to keep social distance and to pay digitally. Previous problems with a lack of disinfectant hand gel are beginning to decline, though the available stocks are still going to healthcare providers. “But the lack of face masks in 65% of pharmacists and gloves in 40% of pharmacists remains problematic, although pharmacists understand that the available resources must first go to the healthcare providers directly caring for Covid-19 patients.”
Care function expanded
The survey still shows that many patients are postponing a visit to the doctor because, for example, they find it too risky. “Pharmacists are seeing many people with minor complaints such as gastrointestinal problems, coughs, headaches, etc. They question them carefully to determine whether they should go to the doctor. Pharmacists indicate that such visits are on the rise. They also report that in a number of areas, doctors are failing to visit or receive some patients for consultation. These people then come to the pharmacy, which greatly expands their care function,” says Prof Tommelein.
Home pharmacist is success
A number of recent developments, such as the concept of a family pharmacist, are bearing fruit. “Patients who take a lot of medication can register with the family pharmacist, who provides these patients with an up-to-date medication schedule. This initiative is particularly useful when patients have to go to hospital. With the medication schedule, care providers in the hospital can start working immediately. Hospitals have recently asked patients to bring this schedule with them.”
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Prof Eline Tommelein