What makes a COVID Hero? An award-winning pharmacist shares her wisdom
You don’t need the extensive CV that pharmacist Sally Farmer has stacked up to be crowned a C+D Award winner, but a love of pharmacy certainly helps get you through the tougher times
Just reading a list of Sally Farmer’s roles and achievements is enough to wear you out.
The Day Lewis regional pharmacist manager turned vice-chair of Somerset local pharmaceutical committee (LPC) and primary care network (PCN) lead for Taunton Deane West was responsible for single-handedly administering more than 1,500 flu vaccinations last season – including to homeless residents in Somerset. She also provided more than 70 private services for patients who found it difficult to access their GP during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was the team at Burnham-on-Sea that allowed me to do all that,” Ms Farmer tells C+D modestly. “They're so organised and coped really well with the COVID-19 requirements – PPE, cleaning, directing patients.
“I've got checking technicians and a checking dispenser as well, so I was clinically checking all the prescriptions when I first came in in the morning and in the afternoon, and then I just sort of left them to run the dispensary, while I did the flu jabs and any services,” she explains.
Now a C+D Award-winner, Ms Farmer shares how she and her team coped during a challenging year, when COVID-19 struck and pharmacy professionals found themselves facing ever-increasing workloads and the chance to participate in a huge national vaccination programme.
“Not just medicines”
During the first few weeks of lockdown, queues 20-people deep round the pharmacy’s car park weren’t unusual, and Ms Farmer says they were forced to change the skill mix in the pharmacy to meet the growth in demand – something she hopes will be a lasting legacy from the pandemic.
“There's no point in a pharmacist standing there checking all day; that's not what we're there for. The technicians and dispensers can hold the fort there for us while we see patients providing services. Everyone is upskilling and the pharmacist doesn't need to be scared of that.”
As well as taking on patient queries – such as shingles, urinary tract infections and pneumonia jabs – typically saved for the GP, Ms Farmer says many conditions were magnified during the pandemic, and she became very aware of a rise in mental health concerns among her patients. Signposting and working with community groups to provide a more “holistic” approach became a regular occurrence.
Recent research from Reading University also highlighted the role community pharmacies have played in supporting patients with dementia during the pandemic, something that Ms Farmer can attest to.
“One gentleman used to come in without a mask and say: ‘why are you wearing masks’ every time he came in, because he just had no idea what was going on,” she explains. “He lived alone, so we got him some help.”
In another incident, Ms Farmer and her colleague visited a patient after he hadn’t been to the pharmacy to collect his medicines and found him lying on the kitchen floor. The pair broke into the premises and phoned an ambulance. The patient had been in this state for three days and the paramedics explained that they “probably saved his life”.
It’s cases like these that show pharmacy’s worth, she says. It’s “not just medicines” the thousands of teams across the UK deal with every day.
Adding to the load
Not content with just running a busy pharmacy during a global pandemic, when the call came in from NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE&I) inviting pharmacies to join the COVID-19 vaccination programme, Ms Farmer spent just over a week tuning into webinars, learning the stock ordering processes, getting her head around the national booking system and putting a team in place to head up a Day Lewis-led vaccination site at Burnham Association of Sports Clubs (BASC).
Making the most of local links, the sports ground was chosen to plug a gap in COVID-19 vaccination provision in the area – plus, with many sporting events on hold, the venue provided much-needed space, car parking and a recognisable, friendly venue for local residents to travel to.
Ms Farmer – who confesses that nothing really phases her anymore – admits that it was a challenge to make sure she and the team were clinically up to speed and the BASC site would meet NHSE&I’s requirements on the video call walk around prior to set up.
“When the call came in, we sat down and thought about it. I mean, it's been challenging, I'm not going to lie, and the teams have been working flat out,” she says. But the desire to help get people through the pandemic soon won over any initial workload pressure concerns.
“We decided to do it so that we could still run the pharmacies and they weren't short staffed, mainly doing it at weekends,” Ms Farmer explains.
“We got two technicians trained to vaccinate as well, which is absolutely fabulous because I just couldn't have done it without them. We have got some dispensers trained to vaccinate, but it's a bit more difficult because you still have to have a clinical person to do the risk assessment.”
Ms Farmer says it’s not just her pharmacy team who have upskilled rapidly over the past 18 months, but she too feels she has had to “step up clinically” to get to grips with the COVID-19 vaccination process and unusual patient queries faced during this time.
Hitting their stride
The BASC vaccination site has been up and running for more than 16 months by the time C+D visits in July, and Ms Farmer and the team have hit their stride. She has implemented a mandated hour’s lunchbreak for the two vaccinating days, and the BASC site manager regularly preps meals for the clinicians and volunteers to enjoy together. Additional NHS vaccinators have been enrolled to help spread the workload – and give the pharmacy staff well-earned time off after more than a year of weekend working, on top of the ‘day job’. Having not had the chance to visit any other COVID-19 vaccination sites, Ms Farmer says she likes asking the volunteer vaccinators their views on the BASC operation and their responses are always positive.
And we can see why. The few hours spent at the BASC vaccination site are calm, efficient and have a personal touch – very reflective of Ms Farmer’s own nature. After each patient is greeted by a volunteer in the car park and signed in, the same clinician conducts the risk assessment and vaccination. Patients attending for their second jab during C+D’s visit are greeted like old friends, and afforded plenty of time to discuss any concerns – as well as a general chit-chat.
Despite trepidation from some patients, the Day Lewis team has not had anyone refuse the COVID-19 jab.
“I understand why people may be anxious,” Ms Farmer says. “Especially people of a certain age – younger patients – who don't really have vaccines or haven’t had a vaccine since they were very little. So, they’re often more worried than the older patients.
“I've had a few fainters, but it's only because of panic and worry. But once you've reassured them and looked after them, they're absolutely fine,” she adds.
“I just love pharmacy”
Despite her mounting to-do list supporting pharmacies in her area in both her LPC and PCN roles, Ms Farmer has recently found time to record a video for Health Education England, encouraging the next generation of pharmacists to consider a career in the community sector.
“I just like the community pharmacy side – getting to know people and seeing the same people all the time, building relationships,” she tells C+D. “It's busy. Very busy, but don't let that put you off.”
Asked if and how she spends her time away from pharmacy, Ms Farmer admits she hasn’t quite managed to “step back” over the past 18 months but attempts some escapism by walking her dog and spending time in the countryside.
She’s not downbeat about her current set-up, however – far from it.
“I just love pharmacy, that's what it is.”
And she hasn’t let the success of being crowned the COVID Hero at the 2020 C+D Awards go to her head either. It has, however, prompted her to appreciate the “phenomenal work” pharmacists and their teams are doing every day during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s hard to put into words what you do daily, so people don't feel like the day job is anything to write home about,” she tells C+D. “The stress and the workload are huge, but we should all be really proud of ourselves for getting through that.”
Her advice for anyone unsure about entering the C+D Awards this year? Even if you think it's something that you do every day, write it down – you might be surprised at how much the role actually entails – and try and praise each other wherever possible, she says.
Do you think you could win a C+D Award? Get inspiration by reading about each of last year’s C+D Award winners, runners-up and shortlisted entries, or click below to learn about this year’s categories and to enter.