Pharmacists, GPs continue to see marked downturn in foot traffic

It is a myth to assume that all pharmacies ‘are doing well’ from COVID-19, says the Guild, with many looking to the JobKeeper scheme to stay afloat

Pharmacies located in business districts or with a large number of patients who are office or city-based workers, along with pharmacies in larger shopping centres or medical centres whose doctors have transitioned to telehealth, have reported significant reductions in their overall business, Pharmacy Guild Victorian branch president Anthony Tassone tells AJP.

“It is a myth to assume that all pharmacies ‘are doing well’ from COVID-19 and many have applied for or are considering their options for the Australian government’s JobKeeper scheme,” he said.

Phil Chapman, director of retail leasing authority Lease1, confirmed the downturn in foot traffic.

“Unfortunately the pharmacies in the larger shopping centres have been highly exposed to the massive fallout of shops closing around them, and the distance and proximity to supermarkets in some regard,” he recently said.

“Footfall for some of those has dropped dramatically, even though they have remained open and answered the call the government put out to them.”

Pharmacists are stressed about the lack of traffic while they’re still paying high rents, Guild NSW branch president David Heffernan explained.

“There was an initial sugar hit but it’s a ghost town in many shopping centres now, and pharmacy owners are looking at their books and wondering how they’re going to survive. They’re filling out JobKeeper forms and facing hard decisions.”

An anonymous pharmacist based in Sydney also told AJP that compared to the customer frenzy at the start of March, their pharmacy “is now really quiet”.

The downturn hasn’t affected everyone equally.

Mr Tassone added that other pharmacies in shopping strip or local small centre locations have reported a steady level of business, or the reductions may not be to the same extent as those in business district, large shopping centre or medical centre locations.

Meanwhile general practices have also been seriously hit with a downturn in patient visits.

AMA Qld branch president Dr Dilip Dhupelia recently told the press that patient numbers are down by up to 40%, with GP clinics also being forced to apply for the JobKeeper subsidy scheme.

“Our capacity’s extremely idle at the moment, even with telehealth consultations to take care of the vulnerable, the ones that can’t come down for whatever reasons,” AMA national president Dr Tony Bartone said on Thursday in an interview with the ABC.

“We know that, during this time, people have put off going to the doctor, put off dealing with a concern or a niggle or an unexpected or new developing pain or a new developing spot on their arm, saying that either doctors are too busy with COVID at the moment, or that we don’t want to risk the chance of picking up a COVID infection.”

However Dr Bartone warned that due to people putting off GP visits, Australia will soon see an increase in delayed presentations through illnesses and other health conditions that haven’t been managed or diagnosed.

He said GP waiting rooms are cleaner than ever so patients should not put off their doctor’s visit.

“If it’s safe enough to catch a tram, safe enough to go to the supermarket, if it’s safe enough to go to cafes and restaurants in groups of 10; it’s certainly safe enough to go see your doctor,” he said.

Mr Tassone said community pharmacies are playing a vital role in the healthcare system, especially during pandemic times.

“Given that community pharmacies are the most accessible and visited primary care destination in Australia, pharmacists are well placed to be a first port of call for many patients and to help triage and refer to other health professionals for further care when needed,” he said.

“We have done it for years, continue to do so throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and it is what we are trained to do being part of the broader health professional team.

“Community pharmacies every day and are working closely with their local GP colleagues to ensure patients continue to receive the care and medicines they need, including quick adoption of telehealth and use of digital images on prescriptions.

“The Australian public have greatly benefited from community pharmacies continuing to keep their doors open, provide outreach and home delivery services to provide continuity of care and access to life-saving medicines throughout the COVID-pandemic.”

He added that community pharmacies have also been critical in helping ensure Australians have protected themselves against the flu this year.

Recent statistics from MedAdvisor revealed a 300% spike in flu vaccination administered in pharmacies this year compared with last year, with more people opting for the jab in April than the usual peak month of May.

Patients seem to be flocking to pharmacies for their flu shot, as Dr Dhupelia said GP clinics were seeing a drastic reduction in the number of flu shots compared with the same time in 2019.

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