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Save Pharmacy: ‘The era of nice needs to become the era of what is reasonable’

It will come as no surprise to any pharmacist that we are in the midst of a battle royale. But rather than retreating to the bunker, we should regroup and fight the fight of our professional lives, says Ali Sparkes

I recently appeared on ITV Wales. We’d received a phone call in the morning from a journalist asking me if I’d comment on NHS pressures and those relating to pharmacy.

It was a rare moment for me to be in my office upstairs at work. I wasn’t the responsible pharmacist, and for the first time in a very very long time I might actually be able to sort the armageddon-like proportions of paperwork that had accumulated from being far too busy.

One of the team downstairs rang my mobile and uttered the now infamous words: "Are you in a very important meeting, as ITV are on the phone?"

Every part of my being wanted to say: "Yes I am and go away!" This was my day to have some time for my own work at last. Despite that, the pressures of 2022 in particular have propelled me to understand that something has to be done that is bigger than myself and my situation.

Read more: Primary care recovery plan: Barclay wants pharmacists to do 'even more'

There is an inherent unfairness in pharmacy that is starting to rankle and I’ve seen it as a raft of staff left last year for futures bright in hospital, prison and local government.

There is an unfairness in pharmacy's image. It started with my favourite film It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr Gower the drunken druggist, and continues to this day with BBC's Happy Valley and the suspicious chemist dealing with the underworld and slipping sleeping tablets to his addicted customers.

It is unfair and unrealistic when paramedic spokespeople say on the national news that pharmacy is underutilised. Do you feel underutilised in your pharmacy every day?

Where is the brief (too brief) heroic fantasy we pharmacists had through COVID-19? Were the public clapping for us at 8pm every Thursday? Did we feel special as the roads parted and we sailed through in our emergency cars to save our community?

Read more: ‘Last man standing’: How will NHS strike action affect community pharmacy?

The truth is that we were probably not first in the public’s mind when they were banging saucepans for the NHS. That would be preserved for hero doctors and angel nurses, those ones we watch on Casualty, Grey’s Anatomy and The Midwife. There may be flawed characters but they can save lives and it is very visible, very prime time.

It was that unfairness that made me utter the words, "I’ll be right down" and, answering ITV's call, ask, "What’s the timescale and what do you need?"

My brief media training with Numark and a harsh but fair Sky News presenter has always proved useful and some main points stuck in my memory: time is everything; get your soundbites; leave enough space between sentences for editing.

Within a few hours, a charming, very young double act from ITV arrived. I asked them where they would like me but also kept in my mind where it would be less disruptive for the team.

I’ve refused for a very long time to count tablets or show it being done; that doesn't help our representation in the next TV series pharmacists feature in. Instead, I directed them to our robots, our consultation room and, to fill their segment, a bit of checking and squiggling with pens.

I sensed the direction of their questioning and the slight glazing over when I mentioned money and resources. They repeatedly asked what pharmacy can do to help and I felt we were becoming almost a hope piece for a public that is rightly anxious that their good old NHS may not be there for them in their time of need.

Throughout COVID-19, I felt this responsibility of being a beacon of hope. My dear departed mum’s presence has always felt like a lighthouse. She was a stalwart of church and community and I attempted to carry the standard forward even though I knew it would never be up to her level.

Read more: NHSE: Pharmacies can help with more services, but sector is ‘fragile’

There is, however, only so far you can carry a standard before your arms and body weary and you become a target for opposition forces. The term battle weary has never been more significant for me or, I’m sure, other colleagues, who look metaphorically bloodied and battered.

I’ve even considered if we could raise a class action against our government for the lack of duty of care to pharmacy during COVID-19.

I said at the time we were thrown to the wolves and I have a suspicion that our GP colleagues knew exactly what pressures were coming and drew up the drawbridge, with us left as infantry fodder. If I’m astoundingly wrong I will eat my pharmacy hat.

Apologies if the military metaphors are becoming rife, but battle must go on. You see, the ITV interview was fine. It was nice and, while that is one of pharmacy’s strengths, it is not going to serve us or our communities well.

We need a crusade, the dictionary definition being a vigorous campaign for political, social, or religious change. Take out the religious, replace it with moral, and we’re not far off.

My brief ITV appearance and, I believe, lack of personal effectiveness has changed me, as the whole COVID-19 experience has. Being a flag bearer is now the only choice.

I've started with a #savepharmacy hashtag on social media and have been sent so many messages of personal experience, many from pharmacy colleagues that work in environments where they are not allowed to express their opinions freely. We need more than a Twitter army, so the next thrust must be political.

Read more: ‘Critical situation’: PSNC moots reduced opening hours amid NHS strike chaos

For those that know me for my positive motivational quotes and brand ethos at The Health Dispensary, this may sound a bit counter-revolutionary. However, positive psychology is much about harnessing our character strengths and finding meaning. If that means setting our boundaries and asking for what is right, just and fair then bring it on!

The era of nice needs to become the era of what is reasonable.

Ali Sparkes is director of happiness & technology at The Health Dispensary

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