Pharmacists in a COVID-19 Society: How Will We Change from This Experience?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Marsha K. Millonig, MBA, BPharm

Many of us may not have imagined the global situation with COVID-19. It is impacting all aspects of our professional and personal lives.

When we are able to move through managing the pandemic response and emerge on the other side, there must be some lessons to learn from this pandemic, both in the near and long term. And I would like to challenge all of us to think about how our personal and professional lives may be enriched as a result of what we are learning from this unprecedented experience. Also, consider how our states and country may take what we’ve learned and apply it to enhancing health business and care processes and practices in the future.

Can COVID Lessons Help Pharmacies in the Long Run?

We are witnessing new measures being implemented in the pharmacy (and all retailing) and healthcare community that may serve to provide better access to care, at lower costs and in a more sanitary environment. Examples include more flexibility for patients to visit with their providers through a variety of technology and media, the emphasis and expansion of telehealth visits, and expanding pharmacy delivery services.

We are learning to change and adapt more quickly. In the past four weeks, in the pharmacies that I have been working, numerous innovative preventive measures have been implemented rapidly:

  • Emphasizing curbside and drive-through usage
  • Implementing social distancing procedures using a variety of visual markings/signage and clear barriers to contact
  • Using new protocols to manage and control viral exposure in the pharmacy, including processes to minimize frequent surface contact
  • Hourly handwashing and workstation sanitizing
  • Using personal protective equipment
  • Working with patients to manage medication needs to avert creating shortages
  • Providing remote counseling, education, and ongoing follow-up

Out of necessity, pharmacists have now created an environment that is more attuned to infection control yet allows us to still provide care. Perhaps some long-term efficiencies will be the result of this “new normal?”

Pharmacy stands to benefit as well from states easing access to pharmacist-provided services and other waivers that will allow us to “step up to the plate” during these challenging times. I believe patients are becoming more appreciative of our advice and counsel as they seek to assess their situation and home environment. Pharmacists are using their compounding skills to ease the shortage of hand sanitizers. They are providing careful assessment and recommendations to patients to ease panic and hoarding behavior.

Innovation Beyond the Store

Innovation is also occurring widely in a variety of sectors, including the pharmaceutical industry. The rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine is underway by several firms, and the Gates Foundation is directing funds to an innovation generator. When a vaccine is approved, pharmacists stand ready in their role as immunizers to put their services into overdrive to meet what will no doubt be high demand throughout the globe.

Another positive outcome to strive for is more U.S.-based manufacturing of medicines. The COVID-19 situation is illuminating what many may not have known regarding how much of the country’s medication supply is tied to foreign countries, especially China and India. I have been tuned to this supply chain dynamic since helping to manage the 1987 generic drug crisis when substandard product from outside the U.S. caused severe disruption to medical care. How many people are aware that the FDA has offices in China and India because of our reliance on their manufacturing operations? Work was already underway at the University of Minnesota under government grants to look at the security of our medication supply system because of its global reliance and what steps may be taken to address gaps and increase supply sources. I am hopeful when we come through the pandemic, we will see a resurgence in U.S.-based medication production.

Finally, we also see stories daily about the resiliency of people and the power of positivity. People from all walks of life investing their time, talent, and treasure to help others as we move through this pandemic. People are checking in more frequently with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We have been through hard times before. We will experience hard times again. We are not near the top of the curve yet; there is still much to come. But no doubt, as we move through this pandemic and emerge on the other side of the curve, there will be many opportunities for improvement, help, and hope.

Marsha K. Millonig, MBA, BPharm, is a practicing retail pharmacist and an Associate Fellow at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy’s Center for Leading Healthcare Change. She also consults on industry issues as president and CEO of Catalyst Enterprises, LLC.

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