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The independent pharmacy group with an army of vaccinators

C+D readers voted RJR Chem as their Above and Beyond Team of the year after they drafted in the military and local volunteers to help administer thousands of COVID-19 vaccinations

With 14 mass vaccination sites and over 120 staff, including more than 30 pharmacists, the team from RJR Chem worked with the military and local volunteers to deliver an astonishing 240,000 jabs during the first wave of COVID-19 vaccinations in 2021.

As an independently owned pharmacy chain based in the West Midlands, the 90-strong team promoted their presence in ethnic minority areas through appearances on local radio and television. This helped to educate the public about the vaccine and reassure them of the benefits as opposed to the preconceived risks.

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

The results speak for themselves. The RJR Chem team’s hard work put them within the top 10 vaccine providers in the country, garnering admiration from NHS England (NHSE) for a higher-than-predicted uptake as well as from patients, who applauded the team for being organised, efficient and friendly.

These impressive numbers led to C+D readers voting RJR Chem as their Above and Beyond Team at the C+D Awards 2022, recognising the vital importance of their COVID-19 vaccination work.

Jaspal Rahania, pharmacist and director of RJR Chem, talks to C+D about how the group is taking lessons learned from the pandemic to grow an independent pharmacy group that is fit for the future.


Can you tell us about how COVID-19 affected your team?


When we first started the vaccination process, there was a lot of fear in the local population. But our focus was that we had to do right for our community. We had a lot of paid staff and volunteers who all got together, spreading the word to get vaccinated, and [telling people] that we’d be doing it as efficiently as possible.

Read more: The quick-thinking pharmacist who saved a patient in anaphylactic shock

There were loads of queues initially because everybody wanted to be vaccinated, but our staff knew the task that we had and were very engaged by the impact they were having.


How has winning the C+D award helped you helped your business?


We always strive to do better and go above and beyond for our patients, so it’s been fantastic – an absolute blessing. It's a bit of a talking point among the branches and has helped staff morale.

Read more: The award-winning LPC providing ‘life-changing’ training to pharmacy teams

We've promoted the fact we’ve won the award and it's helped patients through the door so we're getting more footfall for our services. Our COVID-19 vaccinations sites as well as our bricks and mortar pharmacies have benefited.


Tell us about you, your team and RJR Chem


RJR Chem has three directors, we've employed a regional manager from a corporate, and we've got a HR specialist and bookkeepers on board.

Read more: The award-winning agency helping pharmacies move to a digital future

We’ll have 12 pharmacies in total by the end of September, and we are still running our vaccination programme even today – though it's not as busy as it used to be.


I've just walked through your doors. What do I see?


We promote our products and services but the main thing you'll see is a smiley face in all our branches, with our staff members on the counter going above and beyond for our patients – many of whom they know on a first-name basis.

Read more: The award-winning pharmacy team that raised thousands of pounds for Ukraine


Tell us a bit about your values


We are passionate about putting customers and patients first. We treat everyone like a good family member or dearest friend of ours, with a huge focus on the highest standards of empathy, customer service, and getting to know our patients.


If your colleagues were to sum RJR Chem up in a few words, what would they say?


A friendly company with good directors who understand their jobs and see staff as not just numbers but part of the family.

Read more: Could you win a C+ D Award? Top tips to make your entry sparkle


Tell us a bit about the communities you serve


We've got a pharmacy in Cheshire, a pharmacy in Gloucester and a few in Telford and elsewhere in the West Midlands. Each area has got a slightly different demographic.

We try to understand the demographic and the needs of each community as opposed to having one standard approach for all branches. There’s a lot emphasis on, for example, [whether] the population that we're serving is English-speaking. Do we have the capability to communicate effectively? Is it an affluent area – in which case we’ll cater for them with the higher end services and products that we sell – or is it a little bit more of a deprived area, where we’ll put more emphasis on the mental health element and other products and services that we offer.

Read more: Why we gave two of our pharmacies a 'facelift'

Areas like Gloucester are quite affluent and very understanding of what pharmacy does, but in other areas they don't fully understand the processes of repeat prescriptions, etc. So sometimes we go above and beyond for those communities. For example, only the other day, a colleague filled out a form because the gentleman literally could not write his name in English, so he could give it back to his surgery.


Tell us about the services you offer


We engage with GP practices, [and offer the] community pharmacist consultation service (CPCS) and the new medicines service (NMS). We do flu vaccinations, which is quite standard, but we also do ear syringing, which is less common. We're also in talks with an online private patient group direction (PGD) provider to roll out an array of [other] services.


Can you give us some specifics on volumes?


Our Gloucester branch does over 25,000 items, and as a group we are at about 100,000 items.

Read more: The private pharmacy business that's ‘breaking the mould’

We've got two 100-hour pharmacies and that helps because it’s a good provision for out of hours, so we're really proud of that. Our Wolverhampton and West Bromwich branches are open until seven o'clock at night, which I think is also longer than our competition.


How has demand evolved?  


Post-pandemic, it's a bit of a mixed bag in some of the little branches but something we have noticed is volumes have gone up and we're starting to see an increase in nomination figures now.

I think this is because during the heart of the pandemic, pharmacies were one of the only businesses that stayed open even where there was a high level of risk. People have really taken that on board and are saying, “You were there for us when all of the shops were closed, and you risked yourselves.”


How do you get the word out about what you have to offer?  


Our COVD-19 vaccination programme gave us contacts with the local newspaper, and TV and radio, so the word spread like that. Our vision next is to get into the digital and social media side.


What do you put your success down to?


I think the success comes down to looking at how we as an individual, as a human being, can help one another. I'm a Sikh and we're brought up with [the idea that] what you do, as a point of origin, is to help, and we've really just run with that.

Read more: The independent pharmacy with its eyes on the prize

I honestly believe that in this job I'm blessed, and I have a lot of gratitude to be in this position, so helping is what I can do to repay the powers above. That's why we reiterate customer service: if you can, help somebody and give an honest day's work.


What’s next for RJR Chem?


A few more acquisitions, if they go through. What we want to do as a company is to grow and allow services – rather than items – to be the leader of what we represent. We just want to be one of those little groups out there that you can point to and say, that's a definition of an independent: independently thinking and independently looking after everyone as an individual.


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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