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'Pharmacy needs clearer guidance on handling racism'

"We need to adopt a collaborative approach"

A plan to make pharmacy more inclusive has good intentions but lacks clarity, says Naimah Callachand

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a real eye-opener to inequalities globally and within UK pharmacy. On March 10, NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE&I), the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) and the Association of Pharmacy Technicians UK (APTUK) published a “joint national plan for inclusive pharmacy practice”. This plan, quite rightly, aims to “develop and embed inclusive pharmacy professional practice into everyday care”. It also aims to address health inequalities, something that we as a profession can all get behind.

Alongside the launch of the plan, Dr Keith Ridge, England's chief pharmaceutical officer, wrote in a blog: “As part of our professional responsibilities, pharmacy professionals at all levels and in all care settings should proactively ensure there is no tolerance of racism and racial discrimination in the workplace.”

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to adopt a collaborative approach, especially with regards to combatting COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) patient groups. It is important that as a profession we provide a safe and inclusive environment for all our patients in all aspects of care.

But does the joint plan go far enough? It sets out some commendable ambitions, but there are no substantial commitments. One of the “themes” is “education and training”, which should be front and centre of a plan to tackle discrimination. C+D’s racism survey last year showed support for anti-racism training from 71% of Pakistani pharmacy professionals, 60% of Indian respondents and 66% of African respondents. This first phase of the joint plan awards the topic only a vague half-page.

Health Education England, the RPS and APTUK say they will develop a “menu” of “current training and resources on culturally competent healthcare delivery with a focus on enabling pharmacy professionals to support delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine and beyond”. Pharmacy professionals need new training, not a list of already available “current” courses, as these have so far proven not enough to tackle the systemic problem of racism.

The results from C+D’s racism survey, published in July last year, exposed shocking levels of racism towards pharmacy staff members from BAME backgrounds. What steps exactly will NHSE&I, the RPS and APTUK take to address racism and discrimination between pharmacy colleagues?

C+D’s survey found that 56% of BAME pharmacy professionals received racist abuse from colleagues at least once in the first half of 2020. The joint plan says it wants to deliver “culturally competent” healthcare – care tailored to meet patients’ diverse cultural needs. If this is to happen, then racism needs to be stamped out from within pharmacy teams first.

How will these organisations measure cultural competency? What steps exactly will they take towards achieving it? I acknowledge that only phase one of the plan has been published so far, and I look forward to seeing what issues are tackled in the next phases, and how these essential questions will be answered.

Increasing BAME representation in senior positions across pharmacy is another way in which we can improve inclusivity. This would encourage other BAME colleagues to progress as individuals throughout their pharmacy careers. Better representation makes individuals from BAME backgrounds feel more comfortable expressing their opinions.

By ensuring that the voices of BAME pharmacy colleagues are being heard, we can take proactive steps to preventing further injustice and inequality in the workplace. By encouraging and facilitating this inclusive environment, this will ultimately improve patient care.

The plan addresses a crucial topic, but has not yet committed to any meaningful actions. It says it wants pharmacy leaders to value the voices of BAME individuals, springing to “action…immediately”. This is a noble intention, but pharmacy leaders need clearer guidance on how to listen to staff, such as holding weekly meetings where employees can talk to managers if they have issues.

As the joint nature of the plan tries to demonstrate, it is imperative that we adopt a collaborative approach. We can move forward together in unison to combat future inequalities, not just within the pharmacy sector, but within healthcare as a whole. The next official roundtable on the topic will be in summer 2021. I welcome any suggestions on how pharmacy professionals can get involved.

Naimah Callachand is C+D clinical and custom content editor

*Minor amends were made to this article on March 17 and the headline was changed from "Does NHS plan to make pharmacy more inclusive go far enough?"

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