Heads down or heads up?

by Nicola Gray, RPS Regional Liaison Pharmacist

One of the privileges of being a Regional Liaison Pharmacist for RPS is having the opportunity to go and speak to pharmacists working across different sectors of care about their current work and their aspirations.

One common theme across all sectors for me has been the difficulty so many of us have in imagining a different practice scenario to the one we currently work in. The very real and constant pressure of daily work means that pharmacists often have to concentrate on traditional tasks to meet the needs of an increasing – and more complex – patient caseload. It might be the community pharmacist chasing yet another medicine in short supply; the chief pharmacist considering how to cover their on-call responsibilities; the academic pharmacist running the same lab 5 times to accommodate student numbers; or the GP practice pharmacist team leader covering several practices themselves because of the churn in their team. The common feature is ceaseless demand, which restricts our capacity to think and act strategically and to connect with the wider system.

Tied to the wheel

I’ve come to call it the ‘heads down’ phenomenon, but another pharmacist recently described it to me as being like ‘hamsters on wheels’. Those of us who are not caught in this cycle might become frustrated by a disappointing pharmacist response to funded offers of training, or worry that opportunities for strategic development will be missed because system leaders do not see demands from the profession for their ‘place at the table’. I believe that the ‘heads down’ phenomenon gives us a very reasonable explanation for why this might be – and a way to consider what we really have to do to facilitate change.

Looking up

Each of the four Regional Liaison Pharmacists has many stories of the innovators and local and national pharmacy leaders who are determined to look beyond the daily grind. For example, I attended the Greater Manchester Pharmacy LPN conference in the summer and awards were given there to pharmacists, pharmacy teams and multidisciplinary initiatives to celebrate solid innovation rooted in the needs of local populations. These awards showcased pharmacy-led improvements in patient safety and equitable access to services, which need acknowledging in a national healthcare system where both seem to be an increasing daily challenge.

Becoming part of a movement

The future of pharmacy has to be a system-wide movement united by a common cause and guided by shared values. Where I live in Greater Manchester, a recent meeting about workforce strategy – involving representatives from all patient-facing sectors – showed strong consensus around moves to affirm our shared identity there and use it as a basis to market pharmacy to patients, the public and other professions. This isn’t window dressing – it is fundamental to creating an effective movement.

As a representative of pharmacists in different roles in my past, and in the role that I perform for RPS now, my greatest nightmare is that promises will be made to local system leaders about pharmacy without the certainty that everyone else is committed to that cause. Conversely, the critical mass of pharmacists needed to give that support can only be created if they too feel part of a movement that is not just about another plan, or pilot, but that has the capacity to actually get us from where we are to where we really want to be.

In order to encourage more pharmacists to raise their heads, they will have to start to see small but meaningful positive changes in their daily work. Nothing less will do. This may be facilitated by shifts in commissioning to align incentives for pharmacists with value for patients. It may also be linked to better retention of pharmacists in localities and roles so that the work becomes more proactive than reactive. This will promote trusting personal relationships between pharmacists working in different sectors and with the wider healthcare team. The right approach will be decided at an increasingly local level, but support for these ‘local pharmacy movements’ from RPS and other national bodies and employers will help to sustain pharmacy leaders, and raise more heads up.

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