East to west: How COVID is changing pharmacists' work

Pharmacists do so much more than fill prescriptions — they also provide critical frontline care amid the pandemic.

Vanessa Hrvatin 7 minute read May 5, 2021
pharmacy covid

Healthing.ca spoke with pharmacists across Canada about how their lives have changed amid the pandemic. Getty

Most people don’t think of pharmacists as frontline workers — it’s a profession that seemingly goes unsung by Canadians. But the pandemic has changed this as pharmacies remain one of the few constants during lockdowns and, in many provinces, pharmacists are leading the charge in administering vaccines.

Healthing.ca spoke to pharmacists across the country to learn about their experience throughout the pandemic and how they see their profession changing in the future.

 

Diane Harpell, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
In April 2020, after many years of working in corporate settings, pharmacist Diane Harpell decided there was no better time to dive back into frontline work. She took on a role as a pharmacist in Dartmouth, N.S., and in November, she and her husband bought the pharmacy.

Often thought of for their technical role in filling prescriptions, Harpell says pharmacists are trained as medication experts, which means their scope can be — and often is — much broader depending on the province. In Nova Scotia, pharmacists are authorized to administer vaccines, assess and prescribe for certain conditions such as urinary tract infections and renew prescriptions. This has been especially important throughout the pandemic when clinics and family doctors have been hard to access.

Harpell says answering questions and concerns about vaccines has also been top priority, with patients showing a lot of trust in her recommendations.

“If someone asks me would I take vaccine x,y, or z and I say absolutely, that’s generally all they need to hear from me or one of my pharmacy team members in order to feel the trust they need to then get the vaccine,” she says.

Post pandemic, Harpell envisions more pharmacists moving away from just filling prescriptions and towards clinical settings where they can prescribe for non-urgent conditions and become a primary care option in communities.

“I can see a time where doctors continue to diagnose and pharmacists decide which medications are appropriate,” says Harpell. “A lot has happened in pharmacy throughout the pandemic and it’s becoming more and more obvious that pharmacy has the ability to provide frontline health care to people.”

Javed Jokhoo, Seabird Island, British Columbia
For the past year, Javed Jokhoo has been the only pharmacist serving Seabird Island, a First Nations community in British Columbia, two hours outside Vancouver.

Jokhoo says nearly everything in the community has remained closed throughout the pandemic, aside from his pharmacy which resides inside a medical building. Even now, anyone wanting to speak with him or fill a prescription must call — there’s no foot traffic inside unless it’s deemed essential.

Jokhoo spends much of his time consulting with patients over the phone and delivering medications either in the parking lot of the pharmacy or directly to their doorstep. The latter involves a strict protocol — either Jokhoo or his assistant leave medication in front of the house and knock on the door while the patient remains inside until Jokhoo or his assistant are in their car.

And while things have improved, the duo also had to address medication supply issues for many months.

“At the start of the pandemic people started panicking and ordering medication for three months or more,” says Jokhoo. “I had to control people so even though they were asking for two or three months’ worth of medication, I was giving them whatever I thought was appropriate at the time, which meant a lot of people were getting angry with me over the phone.”

Darren Erickson, Tofield, Alberta
Darren Erickson has been a pharmacist in the small community of Tofield, Alta., less than an hour outside of Edmonton, for over 30 years. Alberta is one of the most progressive provinces in terms of what pharmacists can do, which includes assessing and prescribing for many conditions, as well as providing tests such as strep throat swabs.

Erickson says being able to adjust and write prescriptions for his local community — people he’s known for decades — is one way of helping during a tough time.

“People really appreciate that we are here, and I also noticed a social aspect, because people were sitting at home and the pharmacy was the one stop they could depend on for both medication and for some social interactions,” he said.

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Erickson estimates his pharmacy has administered around 800 vaccines and says the pace means his team must be ready to pivot at any time. He was recently informed he wouldn’t be receiving any vaccines for a couple of weeks, only to be told shortly after that a shipment of Pfizer vaccines was scheduled to be dropped off in the coming days. This will be his first shipment of Pfizer and with a five-day shelf life, Erickson says his team will quickly learn to administer this particular vaccine and start booking appointments as soon as the shipment arrives.

“I can’t believe how fast things continue to change,” says Erickson, who hasn’t taken a day off work since the pandemic hit. “But I know pharmacy is going to save the day.”

Jen Baker, Amherstview, Ontario
When a call came for pharmacies in Ontario to start offering COVID-19 testing, pharmacist Jen Baker jumped at the opportunity. Certain people who are asymptomatic with no confirmed contact are eligible for weekly or biweekly testing, such as health care workers and teachers. With only three other pharmacies in her health region offering this service, Baker knew the additional work would be worth it.

“We’ve been fairly busy with testing, but it’s a really well needed service and something I’m glad to offer,” she says. “But I never would have thought in a million years that this is something I would be doing when I went into pharmacy.”

Baker says her team has been flexible in more ways than one, joking that she never imagined her pharmacy being used the way it is now — a small office where she typically does patient medication reviews is now being used for COVID-19 testing, a less than ideal setup. but Baker makes it work.

“Pharmacies have been the go-to for our provincial government which has been really awesome to see because it’s recognizing that we have the skill set and we fit right into these public health initiatives like hand and glove because we are so accessible,” she says.

Despite this, Baker says there seems to be a general sense of burnout across the profession, especially as the third wave continues to rage on. But she does what she can to stay positive, like singing with her assistant while they fill prescriptions and sharing in peoples’ joy when she vaccinates them — some of whom have left the pharmacy literally doing cartwheels.

Tim Smith, independent pharmacist across Manitoba and northwestern Ontario
Since the pandemic hit, Tim Smith has taken on contracts working as a frontline pharmacist in several communities across Manitoba and Ontario, including Cross Lake First Nation and Sioux Lookout.

For Smith, administering vaccines has been a highlight of the past year and an emotional experience he wasn’t anticipating.

“It really feels like — for the first time perhaps in the past year — a sense of hope or resolution to this and I was a bit unprepared for my own emotional response to it,” he says. “We’ve been doing vaccinations for years such as the flu shot and shingles vaccines, but none of those have the same emotional resonance with people. Pharmacists do lots of amazing professional work all day every day, but nothing has resonated quite in the same way as this has.”

In March, Smith made the decision to return home to Winnipeg and is planning to launch Simplicity Wellness, a clinical practice pharmacy that offers health coaching and consultations in the coming months.

Smith says the pandemic has shown just how important pharmacists are in supporting patients with minor ailments, as well as managing complex patients living with chronic conditions.

“We’re really just scratching the surface of what our potential is, and I think COVID-19 has been a real wakeup call even to Canadians in general as to the role of pharmacists in the health care system,” he says. “My hope is after the pandemic we’ll be able to really advocate for a more fulsome integration of pharmacists into the health care team to support better health care outcomes for everyone.”

Vanessa Hrvatin is a writer with Healthing.ca.

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