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‘It’s a win-win!’: Are pharmacy student vaccinators the future?

With demand for COVID-19 vaccines expected to rocket in the upcoming season, a group of 20 pharmacy students has been trained to administer jabs to lend a helping hand

The upcoming vaccination season is anticipated to be a busy one, with both Boots and Lloydspharmacy responding to “huge” demand last month by opening their flu jab booking systems early.

And patients are also expected to clamour for COVID-19 boosters, after high uptake last year.

Read more: Boots responds to ‘huge demand’ for flu jabs by opening bookings early

Gurinder Singh, one of the University of Reading’s lecturers in pharmacy medicine, was concerned about how pharmacies could cope with this added demand – particularly following widely reported workforce issues affecting community pharmacy. “Having worked on the ground and frontline, I can see how everyone’s really struggling at the moment,” he tells C+D.

But he had a brainwave for how to help. He applied for funding with three other academics Kate Fletcher, Sue Slade and Vicky Kleanthous and they were awarded £1,500 for their vision to train 20 third-year pharmacy students to become vaccinators.

A pharmacy student being trained to give vaccinations

Following a relaxation of rules about who can administer vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic, non-registered people can now give jabs under a national protocol. Guidance on the upcoming COVID-19 vaccination season says that non-registered staff should be clinically supervised and work under the national protocol.

Mr Singh says that the clinical training that third-year pharmacy students have already received makes them a good fit for filling this role. “They have a natural instinct, they’ve had their clinical education, so what better way to use that group of people to fill the gap?”

Mr Singh, who works for Boots alongside his academic role, says that he knew vaccine uptake would be high this year.

Read more: Pharmacies to get £15 per consultation in pilot to tackle COVID-19 jab fears

“We know it’s going to be a record-breaking year – the COVID-19 boosters have been announced and the public are more aware of how powerful vaccines are,” he explains. “But there are literally not enough people out there to do this. With the COVID-19 hubs open now, there is a massive opportunity for students to do some of this clinical work.”

Mr Singh admits that when he was a student, placements in clinical settings were often about checking labels and putting stock on shelves. “But since the government’s rule change, even volunteers off the street can be trained to be vaccinators,” he says. “My feeling is there are these students with a clinical background who are eager to learn, so let’s get them out there.”

His team of 20 students completed their training with ECG Healthcare last month after Mr Singh contacted its founder.

“They’ve trained me there year in and year out, so I wanted to go to someone I could trust,” he says. “I messaged them to ask if it was possible because I didn’t know if they’d be willing to train students who weren’t clinical staff, but they’d been training people during [the pandemic] who were volunteers who don’t have any clinical background. They’ve got the experience to teach people who aren’t pharmacists so that’s why we went to them.”

On the day, all 20 students were trained and assessed on the same date.

“All 20 walked away with a qualification in their hand and you could just see the beaming smiles, knowing their employability is going to increase,” Mr Singh recalls.

A pharmacy student being trained to give resuscitation

He adds that the scheme has made his students more confident in an academic setting, too. “We know that any student who does placements or work opportunities comes back more energised and they perform much better in their exams, their coursework’s much better.”

He adds: “The students are so excited by it because they can see what they do in theory and how this is going to help them in the real world.”

Mr Singh notes that sometimes employers don’t always come back to academic institutions asking for student placements: “It’s always a battle trying to get students out there, knowing their performance and their grades are going to improve but making sure the employers understand these guys do have a certain amount of knowledge, they will be able to help and won’t be a hindrance.

“Now with this extra qualification, we’re trying to get the word around and get local hubs and community pharmacies to use our students.”

With flu season not far away, his students could be more valuable than ever, he says. “People are losing sleep over the flu season,” he comments. “I don’t think anyone knows how we’re going to deliver this record-breaking year because over-50s are now eligible for a free vaccine but the workforce issue is real out there and is a massive problem.”

Read more: Manufacturers on track to meet demand after U-turn on free flu jabs for over-50s

Now Mr Singh is in talks with employers to get his trained vaccinators on site from September onwards. And he believes it’s something that could be rolled out nationally.

“There are thousands of students up and down the country but if there was a central pot of money to address this issue, it would help,” he remarks. “There’s a gap in the market, we know vaccines work, and we know patients are lining up with their arms out to get vaccinated but we’re not able to fulfil it.”

To Mr Singh’s mind, there’s no downside to training students to become vaccinators. He says: “They want to work because they’re excited about putting their skills into practice. I think it’s a win-win!”

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