‘Our pharmacy staff are exhausted.’

Hundreds of readers report pharmacy staff are on the edge of burnout – and meanwhile patient complaints are spiking, with many of these surrounding salbutamol supply

When the COVID-19 panic began descending on the Australian population, pharmacists reported being “smashed” on the frontline serving patients.

“We’re copping the brunt of people’s stress … everyone’s just on high tension,” Sydney pharmacy owner Caroline Diamantis told AJP last month.

Meanwhile PSA representatives Chris Freeman and Chris Campbell shared concerns in a recent webinar that pharmacists and pharmacy staff “are starting to reach the burnout phase”.

Over the past month we have polled readers asking: ‘How has your workplace been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?’

Across 664 respondents, 80% (524 voters) reported that “our pharmacy staff are exhausted”.

A further 75% (497 voters) reported “serious issues with sourcing medicines and stock”.

Half of respondents (51%) said they had witnessed a “significant rise” in abuse of pharmacy staff, and the same proportion reported that patients had abused them or other pharmacy staff due to the government’s COVID-19 dispensing restrictions and also due to medicines stock shortages.

Forty-two percent said they had been abused due to shortages or restrictions on toilet paper, face masks, hand sanitiser or other non-medicine products.

Only around a quarter (27%) of respondents said people were being nicer and understanding.

While 24% of respondents also said they had seen improved collaboration between the pharmacy and local GPs, 17% said they have had difficulties in collaborating with local GPs.

Just 5% of respondents reported that it was “business as usual” at their pharmacy, and they had not had much difficulty sourcing medicines or stock.

“Certainly there’s still aggression and poor behaviour from the general public unfortunately,” community pharmacist and PDL professional officer Georgina Woods told AJP.

“Those ongoing issues are still there – especially the stock shortages, making things very difficult.

However she added that things have “settled down a little bit” over the past two weeks.

“Everyone [in my pharmacy] is doing okay and absolutely doing their best, I think I’m fortunate where I’m working morale is high because we’re all trying to support each other.

“But I know in certain workplaces it has been difficult for employed pharmacists,” she said.

“There are so many factors that are making it stressful – fatigue, difficult customers, stock supply, workflow issues.”

PDL professional officer Gary West agreed that while bad behaviour by some patients is still there, the high tension of the past month is slowly settling, mainly due to some positive changes that have been enacted.

For example, regulatory changes limiting multiple supplies for certain medication has given pharmacists an opportunity to clearly advise people they are unable to assist them because of these changed regulations, he said.

“There has been signage prepared by some of the representative bodies to display,” said Mr West.

“Also, media awareness that it is unacceptable to inappropriately behave towards health professionals has made a difference.

“I think there has been a reduction in the level of fear and anxiety in the public.”

However PDL has also seen a relative increase in formal complaints against pharmacists.

“We’ve seen an increase in the numbers of complaints and actions compared to historic levels, and it’s clear some of those complaints are related to workload pressures, patient anxiety, aggressive behaviour or patients expectations or demands not being satisfied because of pharmacists having to comply with legislation,” said Mr West.

Georgina Woods added that a lot of the complaints are surrounding salbutamol supply.

“This is because the pharmacist is trying to work within the legislation and asking questions, before they even get to say no,” she said.

“Patients don’t want to be queried about it whereas pharmacists are asking more questions, patients are objecting to that. Salbutamol is in short supply at the moment so often pharmacists are trying to reserve it for very serious cases, people who really need it, and they’re obvious trying to be judicious with their supply and that can cause problems.”

She said even if the pharmacist is doing the right thing, the regulator still has to follow up every complaint.

“It’s very stressful for pharmacists. That’s obviously where PDL can step in and assist. Even if it’s just a verbal complaint, it’s still a good idea to report with PDL,” said Ms Woods.

When dealing with a difficult patient, pharmacists can try to respond with empathy and understand the point of view of the patient, Mr West suggested.

“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety out there and a lot of uncertainty, that then impacts on how people behave towards pharmacists and their staff. If pharmacists can recognise these underlying emotions, they then might be able to deal with these confronting situations a little better,” he said.

Ms Woods advised pharmacists: “Try and look after yourselves, debrief with colleagues and call PSS and PDL if you need assistance.”

For 24/7 confidential incident support for employee and owner pharmacists, call PDL on 1300 854 838 Australia wide

Any readers who are distressed can call 1300 244 910 for anonymous and confidential support from a pharmacist colleague over the phone through the Pharmacists’ Support Service (PSS), available 8am to 11pm EST 365 days of the year.

For urgent assistance when PSS is not available, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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1 Comment

  1. (Mary) Kay Dunkley

    Calls to the Pharmacists’ Support Service have also doubled over the last month and the vast majority of calls related to issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The many legislative changes as well as uncertainty and anxiety about COVID-19 plus aggression from the public seem to be behind the increased stress in the profession as well as the increase in workload.

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