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Survey reveals how the pandemic has hampered the provision of vaccinations in Australian pharmacies

COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the ability of pharmacists in Australia to provide vaccination services, new research claims.

Researchers from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Children’s Hospital at Westmead, NSW and the University of Sydney, surveyed 227 pharmacists nationally in June, regarding their practices of recording and reporting vaccination encounters to the national Australian Immunisation Register.

Almost all (96%) of the respondents reported higher than expected demand for influenza vaccination in their pharmacies this year, leading to extensive private market vaccine shortages reported by the respondents, as well as in mainstream media.

More than one quarter of the respondents (27%) said that challenges arising from the pandemic had  negatively affected their practice – with a higher proportion in regional areas (32%) compared with major cities (21%) highlighting this.

Almost half of those affected said they had to implement new protocols that hindered their ability to administer services, such as “additional cleaning protocols that required extra time per patient” and “distancing requirements limiting the number of staff and patients that could be on the premises”.

Ten percent of those who said they were negatively impacted were unable to accept walk-in patients and needed to introduce new booking systems. A total of 13% had experienced staff shortages and rostering difficulties, which meant not enough qualified staff were on site to meet the legislated requirements to safely administer vaccinations.

In fact, given the challenges, two pharmacies reported being unable to offer vaccination services at all in 2020.

“The continuing COVID-19 pandemic will likely see the challenges in influenza vaccine administration faced by pharmacists continue next year,” the authors said, in a letter published in Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy.  

“Pharmacists around the world may well have a role in administering an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, bringing new opportunities but also additional challenges. Rather than implementing ad hoc individual solutions, challenges for administering vaccinations in pharmacy are better addressed by adopting a health systems lens and a patient-centred approach.

Improved communication between pharmacists, government departments of health and peak bodies can facilitate responsive vaccine supply chains that meet patient demand, and relay information about new requirements on delivering vaccination programs in a fast-changing environment,” they said.

“Mechanisms to train pharmacists quickly and upskill those already trained in vaccine administration are essential if pharmacists are to have a role in administering a COVID-19 vaccine, and more broadly in their role as patient educators.”

They said their findings backed those of a European study, published in the same journal, which had highlighted the “considerable impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on both logistic procedures in the pharmacy and services regarding patient education and counseling”.

“Both logistic procedures and patient counseling contribute to high quality pharmacotherapy and are affected,” the authors of the earlier study had concluded.

“Especially, vulnerable patient groups, such as elderly and those with limited health literacy, are at increased risk of drug related problems”.

The ongoing nature of the epidemic meant more consideration needed to be given to the further implementation of telepharmacy, they said.

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