What’s your pandemic plan?

pharmacist with customer blowing his nose

Pharmacists can play a vital role in helping educate people about the novel coronavirus, says an academic and pharmacist – and the profession has a wider role to play in pandemics

Elizabeth McCourt, Evaluation Pharmacist, Queensland Health, Qld and Associate Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology, who has a strong interest in pharmacy’s role in pandemics and other disasters, was responding to a statement earlier this week by the RACGP for better pandemic planning, in the light of concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The RACGP said that Australia has a plan for pandemic influenza which has not been implemented, and that across the country, GPs and patients had been hampered by problems such as inconsistent advice from state and federal health agencies and unpredictable availability of protective equipment, such as face masks.

“I think you could take out ‘GP’ in almost every instance in this article and replace it with ‘pharmacist’,” Ms McCourt told the AJP.

She agreed that there needs to be a national pandemic plan, given that recently the World Health Organization acknowledged that ‘Disease X’ has the potential to represent a serious risk to human life and cause the next epidemic.

“Disease X represents the knowledge that the next pathogen to cause an epidemic could be one that we know nothing about currently,” she warns. “This acknowledgement may have come to fruition with CoVID-19.

“We should be calling for [a pandemic plan] too, but also a seat at the table to discuss how pharmacists can contribute.

“Pandemics are very complex, and it is important we all work together in planning, preparing, and responding. It requires more than one health professional and one area of the health sector.”

Thus it is important when planning for pandemics that professions not become “siloed” in their thinking, Ms McCourt says.

“We need to make sure everyone is at the table to discuss this and make sure decisions that are appropriate for the workforce are being made. Pharmacists are frontline health professionals and we need a good plan on how they will fit into pandemic response.”

Any such plan would not only need to be standardised nationally, but also between states and territories, she suggested.

“State and territory plans need to align, a poorly controlled outbreak in one state can affect another so it is important we are all taking the same precautions and working together.

“In light of CoVID-19 which initially there was a lot of uncertainty about (e.g. spread), a national pandemic plan needs to cover these periods of uncertainty and make a plan for what we will do and how we will do it.

“For example, if there is a virus with unknown transmission which precautions will we take as standard?”

A pharmacist’s role

Ms McCourt noted that in other countries, pharmacists have been used to triage patients and distribute pandemic stockpiles, while pharmacist networks have been used to contribute to surveillance.

“The last national influenza pandemic plan was written before pharmacists had authorisation to immunise.

“This is now a widespread role and needs to be considered in planning for if/when we have an outbreak that is vaccine preventable. How do we fit pharmacists in to a mass vaccination plan if it needs to be undertaken?”

Her own recent work on pandemic influenza planning highlights this, and the findings are transferable to non-flu pandemics, she says.

“Many pandemic plans I’ve seen focus on the acute outbreak, but we have to remember people with chronic diseases still require timely access to healthcare, even if our health systems are trying to combat an infectious disease.

“In this way pharmacists having authorisation to supply increased quantities of medications without a prescription could be useful (as we’ve seen with recent bushfires).”

As for COVID-19 itself, pharmacists can help as it stands by keeping up to date with information to pass onto patients – and helping them understand what may be misinformation.

“I recall one Facebook post on a pharmacy group I am a member of where the pharmacist stated a patient had recently told them ‘I can’t get Coronavirus because I’m not Chinese’,” she said.

“Pharmacists have a powerful role in educating patients about the condition and dispelling myths and misinformation.”

Ms McCourt also suggests that pharmacists help by:

  • Reinforcing hand hygiene for everyone.
  • Taking thorough histories and referring those who they suspect may have the condition.
  • Link in with your Primary Health Network to get information and access to resources (e.g. masks).
  • “Think about your workplaces own ‘pandemic plan’. How will you practice in a pandemic? How will you protect staff? How will you protect patients? As well as having a robust disaster plan, pandemic plans are essential.”

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