Boots staff have shared their concerns about work pressure and staffing levels – but the pharmacy chain says they’re investing in more pharmacists than ever

Are pharmacists working for the UK’s biggest pharmacy chain under too much pressure?

This is the question BBC’s program Inside Out tried to explore in an episode that focused on staffing levels and professional practices at Boots pharmacies.

Greg Lawton, a former clinical governance pharmacist for Boots who was investigating staffing levels across its pharmacies, spoke to the program.

As part of his role investigating dispensing incidences across stores and speaking directly to the pharmacists, Mr Lawton discovered that poor staffing levels was an issue.

“There were issues with training that were identified. There were issues with premises that were identified.

“I told [a senior patient safety manager at Boots’ headquarters] that I was terrified that something bad might happen to a patient, that a patient might be seriously harmed or a patient might die because of the inadequate staffing levels and the pressure that was placed on pharmacists and pharmacy teams.”

The Pharmacists’ Defence Association Union Assistant General Secretary Mark Pitt told the BBC:

“Pharmacists have told us working for Boots that they’re finding that increasingly there are less staff available, and that makes their job a lot more difficult and more pressurised. They are concerned about speaking up about problems in the workplace because they fear the consequences of what will happen to them.”

“We have an open and honest culture,” responded Richard Bradley, Pharmacy Director of Boots UK.

“If they fear speaking up they can ring me direct, I absolutely assure confidentiality on that, just like we do with our whistleblowing hotline.

“They have a responsibility themselves as a pharmacist and a professional to speak up.”

Meanwhile two pharmacists spoke to the program anonymously:

“Some days you would describe the team as being at breaking point,” said the first pharmacist, whose comments were portrayed by an actor.

“That’s because simply the amount of work that has to be done can’t physically get done, safely, and can’t physically get done without working longer hours or working after the store’s closed.”

The second said: “Mistakes may not be picked up on, and that could ultimately lead to somebody possibly dying. Somebody missing their medication. The harm coming to people. Small mixups really, just one tablet for another tablet.

“You don’t have the correct amount of time. You don’t even have the correct amount of staff to do things on time. At best you’ll barely have enough staff to just cope.”

The BBC highlighted three deaths that had occurred due to dispensing errors by Boots pharmacists between 2012 and the end of 2013.

However Boots pointed out there has been no further deaths linked to dispensing errors at its pharmacies since the end of 2013.

The pharmacy chain told the program they dispensed 220 million items in a year. Of these, there were 901 reported incidents where patients were harmed in some way.

Statistically these incidents are “very rare”, the program pointed out.

“One mistake like this, is one mistake too many,” conceded Mr Bradley.

“My absolute assurance is – despite having our industry-leading record, we will continue to focus on minimising the chances of it happening again.”

A union survey of more than 400 Boots pharmacists revealed 31 said they closed the pharmacy because they’d been concerned about staffing levels affecting patient safety.

According to the BBC, 160 out of 212 who’d considered shutting their doors said they didn’t close because they didn’t believe their decision would be supported.

“If we have got people who genuinely feel like that, then it does concern me. So please, please, please do come and speak to me and give me the chance to sort it out,” said Mr Bradley.

The UK’s pharmacy regulator, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), told the show it has inspected more than 2000 Boots pharmacies since November 2013.

Of this number, 26 (1.2%) didn’t have enough qualified and skilled staff to provide a safe service. It says these pharmacies are now up to standard.

In comparison, 2.4% of non-Boots pharmacies didn’t have enough qualified staff.

“I’m absolutely confident that the resources are there to deliver the patient care. I am confident that we have enough staff,” said Mr Bradley.

And what of Mr Lawton’s concerns?

These were immediately escalated to the highest level with Boots management; however he was ultimately disappointed with the response.

“The superintendent told me that he felt nobody out there would welcome the conversation,” Mr Lawton told the BBC.

“Knowing that all that I’d done was try to protect patients, that was very difficult.”

Mr Lawton resigned shortly after, and now works for the PDA union.

Boots claims the superintendent pharmacist never attempted to dissuade Lawton or other members of staff from whistleblowing and that he was supported throughout.

On the show, Mr Bradley dismissed Mr Lawton’s views as outdated.

“We continue to invest in more people, in more pharmacists than ever before.”

Chemist & Druggist (C+D) deputy news editor Annabelle Collins has criticised the BBC program for focusing on “rare” deaths caused by dispensing errors, rather than the daily pressures faced by pharmacists.

Ms Collins also mentions that pharmacists have expressed fears on social media that, due to the documentary, the public will lose faith in pharmacists.