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The independent pharmacy with its eyes on the prize

After snapping up three C+D Awards in as many years, one independent pharmacy owner reveals how she's managed to grow her business despite challenging conditions

A car may not be the first location that springs to mind as the perfect place to be interviewed about your team's achievements.

But this is exactly where Sukhy Somal, managing director of Walsall's PharmaCare Pharmacy, finds herself as she dials into a Microsoft Teams call to reflect on why her business was crowned Independent Pharmacy of the Year at last year’s C+D Awards.

This makeshift "retreat" has become a necessity due to the growth of the PharmaCare team, Sukhy explains. “Every little bit of space I had previously to go and hide, I no longer have,” she says. "Until we have our refit, my car is now my office." 

Read more: ‘We’re as good as the multiples’: The independent pharmacy team with big ambitions

After apologising for her unconventional location, she is keen to talk about how the business first started. Back in May 2014, PharmaCare Pharmacy was a two-person operation between Sukhy and her husband, starting life as an online business. Within just 18 months, her goal of running a 10,000-item pharmacy was realised and the business, now a bricks-and-mortar store, has gone from strength to strength.

She attributes this partly to a hat-trick of C+D Awards, with PharmaCare Pharmacy bagging the Pharmacy Team of the Year category in 2021 and Sukhy winning the Manager of the Year gong in 2020

So what's the secret to all this success? With this year's C+D Awards now open for submissions, Sukhy reveals what it takes to become a multi-award-winning pharmacy team.

 

Community spirit

 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a multitude of pressures to many pharmacy businesses. For her part, Sukhy was keen not to add to the burden on her team. "I was probably one of the very few pharmacists in the country who didn't go anywhere near doing the COVID-19 vaccination service," she tells C+D.

A lot of her peers thought she was "a complete nut case" for opting out of the service, which would open up a new revenue stream; never something to scoff at. But, with typical pragmatism, her response was to point out the "toll" offering yet another clinical service could take on the pharmacy's "day-to-day" offering. As the pharmacy already boasted a weight loss service, blood pressure and diabetes checks and a smoking cessation service, she ultimately decided that yet another new service simply wasn't necessary.

Read more: C+D Awards 2022: Your Above and Beyond winners revealed

Instead, she and her team used the pandemic as an opportunity to decide how to take the business forward, which lead to a delivery service for isolated customers. The team noticed that pandemic restrictions meant a lot of customers were isolated, without access to help. Wanting to lend a hand to their most vulnerable patients, the PharmaCare team set about delivering medication and other essentials such as groceries and magazines to vulnerable patients.

The spirit of altruism continued even after the pandemic, when the team decided to record customers who were on their own or feeling lonely on the pharmacy's patient medication record (PMR) system. These patients were contacted weekly to see how they were or if they needed anything – an initiative that was met with "excellent feedback" from customers and praise from C+D Award judges. 

I was probably one of the very few pharmacists in the country who didn't go anywhere near doing the COVID-19 vaccination service."

While national lockdowns and other pandemic-related irritants may be just a distant memory by now, this enhanced community focus has stayed with the team, with impressive results. Sukhy proudly tells C+D that the business dispensed 36,000 items in March, compared to about 28,000 the year before. Reflecting on these successes, she proudly proclaims that this growth means PharmacCare is one of the “busiest [pharmacies] in the country”. 

Although she acknowledges that it may sound “bizarre”, this growth has been achieved without any advertising – with the vast majority of the increased business coming in through “word of mouth”. As an example, Sukhy reveals that one recent referral occurred after a patient was given a recommendation for the pharmacy by a friend. She estimates she must get at least “one of [these referrals] every month” and she says the team regularly hear from customers who have come in and asked “will you do my friend's meds?”

 

 

A focus on care

 

While the pharmacy's consistent growth has led to more people walking through the door, creating more work, it has also created opportunities to build a relationship with patients and have a conversation, Sukhy says.

For one thing, the reference to care in PharmaCare's name is no coincidence. Sukhy's background in care home recruitment means there is a goal for each of her team members to treat every patient as if they “were treating one of [their] own family members”. The rationale for this is very simple: she notes that “any contact that you have with anybody is a potential future sale”.

Read more: The pharmacy technician who supported seven Lloydspharmacy branches through COVID-19

While the exact breakdown of the pharmacy's customer demographic has changed over time, it is probably 40% weighted towards patients in the local community and 60%  towards those based across the Midlands, where the pharmacy offers a “great care home service”, says Sukhy.

PharmaCare Pharmacy helps care homes with risk assessments, how to write policies, training and how to carry out competency assessments. The team have also been working with Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors to understand the new standards framework going forward for care homes and have been part of an online regional care homes network team meeting to discuss improving medication optimisation and safety in care homes.

“Any contact that you have with anybody is a potential future sale.

However, Sukhy's team don't just work with older people. Indeed, the pharmacy has an apprenticeship programme with a local college and a charity, with the aim of offering the apprentices jobs after the scheme ends.

Now, schools who didn’t even know who PharmaCare was before it won its C+D Awards are now approaching the team to ask if they will “take students on”. The pharmacy has become so popular that the team have to “say no now”, she explains.

For Sukhy, pharmacy is “way bigger” than just the “people [who] walk through the door”. This mentality goes some way to explaining why the pharmacy has been judged “the best independent pharmacy in the country”, she says. 

 

What's next for PharmaCare?

 

With so much success in PharmaCare's past, many would feel uncomfortable with the pressure to keep on growing. But Sukhy remains undaunted, saying she is keen to not just be “a busy fool” and is always “looking to the future”. She is always aware of what their “competitors are doing” she says, and is always “looking [at the] bigger picture”.

Read more: They’re back! C+D Awards officially return for 2023 with two new categories

In the next 12 months, the team will extend the pharmacy so the business can double or triple its footprint, she says. This will include the addition of new clinical rooms to help grow the pharmacy's private services offering. In addition, a dispensing a robot is being put in to help the team handle the numbers of prescription items they now dispense and help them be proactive in preparing the pharmacy for the future. But until the refit, her car will remain her makeshift office, she says.

With so many C+D Awards under her belt, she has some final words of wisdom about the benefits of entering.

She is adamant that some of her pharmacy’s achievements can be directly attributed to what she calls the “award effect”, which, she warns, is not to be underestimated. As she puts it: “I always say, if you don’t apply, you don’t know.”

 

The C+D Awards 2023 will take place at The Brewery in London on September 6. Could you or one of your colleagues be crowned as a C+D Award winner? Check out all the categories for the 2023 awards and enter today.

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