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‘We need a concerted and long-term approach to support the pharmacy workforce’

This Mental Health Awareness Week, CPNI chief Gerard Greene reflects on the key pressure points impacting community pharmacy teams’ wellbeing 

Coming a little over two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity for us to take stock of the mental health of our community pharmacy teams across Northern Ireland.


In what has been an extremely challenging period, in which the focus of the health service has largely been on the COVID-19 response, something that tends to get overlooked is that our healthcare professionals are not immune to mental health issues, and I’d like to draw attention to some of the key pressure points.



COVID-19 exacerbates existing workforce pressures



As a sector, community pharmacy has been under significant and ongoing workforce pressures for several years now. For many members of the public, it represents the front door to the health service, and with this, the sector is adjusting to increased footfall, staffing shortages and instances of staff burnout.


"Some pharmacy staff were doing 70-hour weeks to cope with COVID-19-related absences"


On top of this, the spread of COVID-19 throughout our communities as well as self-isolation rules have placed an additional pressure upon the sector, which has meant that all community pharmacy teams have experienced staffing shortages at some point in the last two years. At several points, we have had 30% of pharmacists self-isolating, meaning those still working were doing 70-hour weeks.


From the emergence of the pandemic, community pharmacies across Northern Ireland have been steadfast in their approach and rapid in their response. In addition to carrying out over a million dispensing episodes each week community pharmacy teams introduced services including COVID-19 vaccinations, the distribution of lateral flow testing kits, and the Emergency Supply Service. They worked additional hours, and showed an incredible level of commitment, dedication and professionalism towards their patients and their profession throughout.



Read more: How Northern Ireland's pharmacies vaccinated a nation



This is illustrated well by the fact that community pharmacies in Northern Ireland have administered almost 350,000 COVID-19 vaccinations to date, which is a huge achievement and a source of pride for the entire network. What tends to get overlooked is how hard the sector has worked in getting us to this point. In what has been, at times, an uncertain and exhaustive period for primary care, community pharmacy has been at the forefront.



Pharmacy teams need support post-pandemic



The pandemic has underscored the vital link that exists between community pharmacy teams and their local community. More and more, we are seeing patients calling upon their local community pharmacist as a fixture in managing their everyday health needs. Of course, while this is a hugely positive indication of the direction of travel towards a community-facing model of healthcare, focus must go towards supporting our community pharmacy teams to manage additional post-pandemic demands.


In the long-term, we need to think strategically how we can support and build a robust community pharmacy network. Central to this is the implementation of the Community Pharmacy Workforce Review to ensure the workforce is of the right size and has the right skills. Many instances of burnout, fatigue and stress are a product of a stretched workforce and can be reduced significantly with the right long-term planning.



Violence in pharmacies



A major source of anxiety for community pharmacists comes with the worrying levels of abuse and violence inflicted upon the sector by some members of the public. Last year alone, there were reportedly 389 crimes within community pharmacies in Northern Ireland, with around 50 of these violent. Regrettably, this comes after more than 1,000 crimes took place in our community pharmacies in 2019 and 2020.


It was only in March of this year during an incident of aggravated burglary that a pharmacist was stabbed and his pharmacy premises damaged. Due to the workforce challenges previously outlined, this community pharmacist had to return to work the following day.


"I'm appealing directly to the public to continue to display the same level of patience and respect so that our community pharmacy teams do not have to feel anxious doing their job"


This Mental Health Awareness Week, I would like to appeal directly to members of the public to continue to display the same level of patience and respect that they have done up to this point so that our community pharmacy teams do not have to feel anxious doing their job. As the statistics show, these are not isolated incidences, but unfortunately form part of a worrying trend. In response, a longer-term and concerted approach is needed to support safe staffing.


Read more: Crimes in pharmacies: How pharmacy teams are currently supported in the 4 UK countries



My thanks to a resilient and strong sector



The last few years have seen the costs of providing community pharmacy services increase significantly. As detailed in a recently commissioned report, there was an increase of 21% in the overall cost of pharmacy services between 2014/15 and 2020/21. Once we factor in the increased footfall and the soaring cost of living, we can begin to get a sense of some of the financial pressures that face our contractors.


As Mental Health Awareness Week continues, I want to reflect on the unwavering commitment shown by the entire community pharmacy workforce. Stepping up to meet pressures, they continue to be a source of certainty and provide a continuity of care to patients in their local community. I want to put on record my thanks for their incredible work to date. The last few years have shown that community pharmacy is resilient and strong, but it is not unbreakable.


Gerard Greene is the chief executive of Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland (CPNI)

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