Pandemic taking its toll

Ongoing supply shortages in pharmacies mean many patients are still finding it difficult to get prescription drugs for chronic conditions

“Understandably, patients are fearful and unsure of the future,” says Advantage Group CEO, Steven Kastrinakis, in explaining how the group has gone about helping its members navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Demand for certain pharmaceutical items have been high, and remain so, for specific items,” he says.

“Even now as we observe a flattening of the curve for new COVID-19 cases, we’re still seeing massive stock shortages.

“Over-the-counter shelves are still empty for specific supplies. Basic painkillers, feminine hygiene products, hand washing products, and asthma puffers just to name a few, are still extremely difficult to get ahold of.

“Pharmacists and their teams are not only having to deal with the legislative and workflow changes surrounding this pandemic, but also the enormous pressure and complaints from the public due to stock shortages, purchase limitations, and the different ways services are being delivered during this unprecedented period.

“Front-line pharmacy teams are dealing with all of these simultaneously on a daily basis and it can take its toll.”

He said that pharmacists are reporting that their teams are “inundated and exhausted,” citing the case of Advantage pharmacist Vy Poon at Galston Village Pharmacy.

Ms Poon had said that early in the COVID-19 crisis, “my team were emotionally and physically drained. We were beside ourselves”.

“I was not sleeping well. My team wasn’t sleeping either. It was hectic in store and I was worrying about how to get stock and supplies in,” she said.

Mr Kastrinakis said that Advantage Pharmacy was working to help its 270 pharmacies in a variety of ways, to help them to provide essential services to patients.

“Australia has never dealt with a pandemic at this scale, and pharmacies being an essential frontline service, must continue to operate and support the community while going through significant operational changes,” he said.

“Pharmacies operating on their own would find it very difficult to keep up with the changes, let alone implement new workflow systems.

“This is where pharmacy banner groups can really support independent pharmacies to enable them to operate at full capacity and maximise their engagements with the community.

“This situation we’re all in right now calls for action. This is the time for the stronger pharmacy groups to emerge and provide pharmacies with clear guidance to be able to manoeuvre the different ways of operating their business in this current environment. 

“Pharmacists on the front line need efficient and quick access on what to action and more importantly ‘how’.”

He said that Advantage Group has been actively providing comprehensive support to its independent pharmacies through timely updates of legislative changes, full implementation support to operationalise legislative changes, provision of resources to promote pharmacy services in this current environment, and tailored support at store level facilitated by the Group’s Professional Services Pharmacists.

Collaboration is also key, he said.

“Working collaboratively with business partners, suppliers, and pharmacy members is a key enabler to maintaining stability across the whole supply chain, and inventory management is critical during this period.”

He said Advantage Group utilised the key functionalities from its inventory management system to help pharmacies streamline their ordering processes by creating personalised, individually suggested orders for each pharmacy member based on their forecast.

This helped provide consistency and certainty around supply of medicines in the immediate term, and has further taken pressure off the major wholesales, he said.

He also reported that he had worked closely with Chairman and CEO of Arrotex Pharmaceuticals, Dennis Bastas, to ensure that the data is used to make informed decisions on the appropriate supply of stock into member pharmacies.

“This in turn, ensured that members had access to ethical and OTC lines specific for their local community and that supply was carried out responsibly without the need for members to undertake unnecessary bulk purchasing or panic buying at excessive prices.  

“Technology therefore played a big part in helping to ensure stable supply of medicines into pharmacies but most importantly to the patients that need it most.”

Mr Kastrinakis said Advantage’s advice to all pharmacists and their teams around Australia is to “ensure they’re putting their mental and physical health as a priority. No matter how long teams are staying back after hours, there has to be a point at which it stops”.

“Going home to their homes and families and trying to get some wind down time if possible is something we have been advising our pharmacists to do,” he said.

“We’re also suggesting that all signage we’ve distributed are clearly displayed in multiple places around the pharmacy.

“Simple signs indicating that only one month of prescription medication is allowed at a time; not to be alarmed that our staff may be wearing masks and gloves, and signs to say bad behaviour will not be tolerated, all help communicate clearly before customers approach the counter.

“We’ve seen multiple examples of where signage has abated difficulties. We’re seeing patients who are dealing with stress, anxiety, impatience and are maybe not used to the changes in the way the pharmacy operates in these times. Clear communication is even more crucial right now.

“A sense of humour and a smile can go a long way to diffuse some situations too.

“One of our Sydney-based pharmacists jokes to her customers, ‘yes, I have a face mask on, and I’ve never felt prettier!’”

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