Meet the pharmacist who wants to reduce patients’ drug intake

Joanne Vella.

A Western Sydney pharmacist has created a business helping her customers understand that medicines aren’t everything

Joanne Vella loves it when her customers ask her about dodgy health information they’ve found online.

“These people are proactive!” she says. “I like these patients. They’re the ones who want to help themselves, and so they’re the ones I can help the most.

“They’re inquisitive, they’re looking for answers. Unfortunately, Dr Google is overwhelmed with lots of information, and not so credible information. I love working with these patients because we can have a conversation about it.

“It’s the people who aren’t interested, who don’t go looking for that information, that probably need a bit more help but are harder to reach.”

Many patients are keen to reduce their intake of medicines or stop taking them, but turn to the Internet to look at non-evidence-based ways to do so.

Ms Vella was inspired to create The Practical Pharmacist, offering “practical health and weight loss solutions,” by her mother Maria, who began searching for ways to stop taking her medicines by unearthing less-than-credible information online.

“Mum was born with a heart defect that wasn’t detected until she was in her 20s,” Ms Vella, who also works at the Chemmart Pharmacy at Narellan Town Centre, told the AJP. “The doctors had her on Valium, thinking she had anxiety, so it took a very long time to detect.”

In later years, Maria Vella began telling her daughter that she didn’t want to take medicines at all to manage her health.

“She decided to do her own research, and so she was finding the dangerous type of information on the internet, and was looking into a lot of worrying things,” Joanne Vella says. “She spurred me on to do my own research to keep her on track and not go to extremes! She needed those medicines to keep her alive.”

Ms Vella says that because medicines work best when a person takes good care of themselves in other ways, she was able to find a middle ground for her mother and prevent her from ceasing her medicines regimen.

“She’s on three medicines now, but was only on one until recently – when you’re in your 70s the blood pressure tends to go up. I look at her, and I look at so many patients I see in a similar boat and they’re on many more medicines than she is.

“The basic things we did to help her make such a huge difference, and it’s incredible to see the difference between her and other clients.”

The Practical Pharmacist is based on the concept that some consumers can avoid ending up on medicines by maintaining their health in a way that is going to work for them.

When a customer has signed up, Ms Vella Skypes with them at a mutually convenient time to take them through their concerns and ways to address them.

“Watching my customers go downhill rather than up got to me,” Ms Vella says. “So I put together a basic program to help maintain best health; everybody’s different and has their own challenges, and so I bend the recommendations depending on each person’s ability and problems.

“This is about getting them to do what they’re willing to do. It’s not about slapping someone with a strict diet and saying, ‘Do this’.

“People get overwhelmed with information when you start saying, ‘Buy this, you can’t have this, you have to do that’. They need to take a step back and look at what we can do first. Once that’s a regular habit, they can move onto the next thing.

“So it’s a slow, progressive approach to help people make new habits.”

Ms Vella says that part of The Practical Pharmacist is about looking for underlying conditions and referring appropriately.

“Probably the most common issue I’m approached with is from women, who have weight and fatigue issues. They’re the most motivated to seek out help.

“We look at underlying causes, such as a thyroid issue, or it could be a bit of insulin resistance. If I suspect something like that, I send them to their doctor with a list of blood tests to discuss with them and see if we can eliminate those as causes.

“And then in the sessions – there’s a lot of slides and visual stimulus to learn from in there too – I can do things like teach them how their choice of food can impact fatigue, for example, and progress in that way.”

Ms Vella says that with pay for pharmacists not progressing, it’s natural that some look at entrepreneurial ways to use their clinical skills and help patients.

“It does concern me, whether the pay is going to be up there with the skills we’re required to have and the service we provide,” she says. “This is a private venture and it helps, but it’s a shame it’s not something I can do in a subsidised way.”

In the meantime, she hopes to help many more patients understand that medicines aren’t a quick fix or full solution to many problems.

“A lot can be controlled with just diet and lifestyle,” she says. “Some will need medicines, and of course that’s fine, but by getting the basics right some can be avoided.

“When I came out of uni I thought drugs were pretty much the answer: there’s a drug for everything.

“But experience shows you that it’s not always the best way. They can help symptoms, and manage some conditions very well, but helping people with their general health can make a big difference, and that’s important too.”

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