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‘Online pharmacy has come of age thanks to COVID-19’

“Patients increasingly turned to online pharmacy to meet their specialist needs”

The situation for online pharmacy is unrecognisable now compared with before COVID-19, although it will never replace community pharmacy, says Stuart Gale

This year has been like no other for the pharmacy sector. COVID-19 has turned life as we know it on its head and we’ve adapted to a world in which everything is subject to change from one day to the next.

Prior to lockdown, despite many pharmacies offering convenient, private options online, and regulators working hard to ensure those operating online were meeting their high standards, many patients were reluctant to take the leap to online pharmacies.

Online pharmacy was primed and ready to achieve its potential, but it struggled to convince a sceptical general public that it was not only a viable option, but one that could, in fact, be a force for good. Six months and one pandemic later, the situation for the sector is unrecognisable. Online pharmacy has come of age.

This was assisted in no small way by changes to NHS England & NHS Improvement directions in September that meant telephone and video consultations with pharmacists could become the norm. Along with electronic prescriptions, this change provided the much-needed green light for online pharmacies. Of course, these changes rely on pharmacists and support staff rallying around to put patients first.

Pharmacy teams have risen to the challenge of COVID-19 by playing an integral part on the frontline. My pharmacy group had two teams in place who were routinely working six days a week to look after patients.

Outside of work, patients were still the focus as staff did all they could to avoid catching COVID-19 so they could keep working. Meanwhile, our dedicated team of online doctors continued to provide vital support to our pharmacy team and patients.

The patient demographic for online pharmacy expanded. We saw a dramatic increase in the over-70s registering to use the service. Some patients who had never dreamed of using an online provider very quickly saw the benefits of doing so during the pandemic.

Patients increasingly turned to online pharmacy to meet their specialist needs by sourcing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) due to shortages in their usual channels, as well as accessing medication to treat more lifestyle-focused conditions such as hair loss.

We also saw demand for over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication surge. This trend began to slow as restrictions eased, but we have seen demand creep up again in September – suggesting people may be preparing themselves for a second lockdown.

Getting hold of stock was incredibly stressful at times. Prices were going up by the day with unscrupulous suppliers trying to make a profit out of the shortages. This was fuelled by panic buying on the part of patients who were desperate to get hold of essentials such as paracetamol and hand sanitiser.

While online pharmacy will never – and should never – replace the role of community pharmacy, it does have a significant supporting role to play for patients, which came to the fore during the pandemic.

Users benefitted from the convenience offered by being able to manage their healthcare from home, as well as seeing the benefits of the discretion that it affords to those who are reluctant to discuss more personal matters in pharmacies.

In terms of what online pharmacy has learned from the first wave of COVID-19, there are five things that  come to mind:

Keep calm and carry on

My pharmacy team has learned not to panic as we discovered the importance of regular, organised communication. We have put weekly meetings in place, which are essential – when you are in the thick of things you don’t have the luxury of a chat over a cup of tea.

Resilience and flexibility

We have to be flexible and responsive. The situation in the first wave was constantly in flux but the key end goals never changed, such as getting deliveries out on time to those who need them.

Health and wellbeing

Every individual who makes up the team plays an essential part, so looking after their wellbeing is vital.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

We’re in this for the long run. We won’t be able to do everything, so we must stay focused on the things that matter and do them well.

It will all be ok

While the first lockdown led to panic buying of essentials, patients have learned that the world won’t end. Essential services will still be there and we will pull out all the stops to ensure people get what they need.

Now that talk of a second wave continues to build, the question of how people will be able to access their medication if they are unable to leave their homes has at least been answered. Online pharmacy stands ready to meet that demand.

Stuart Gale owns the two-branch Frost Pharmacy group in Oxford and Oxford Online Pharmacy

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