Increasingly, pharmacists are expected to play a role in promoting public health. In Wales we are involved in public health campaigns such as #herecomesthesun and #askaboutclots and provide advice to patients on lifestyle issues such as smoking cessation and healthy eating.
According to the Welsh Assembly Government, community pharmacies ‘fulfil both a social and wellbeing function …[and are] routinely visited by people who do not consider themselves to be ill. Each visit is an opportunity to engage with members of the public about their lifestyle and to make a contribution to improving their health’ (Welsh Government White Paper: Listening to you – Your health matters, pp 41-43).
A few months back, a midwife at a weight management class I was attending got me thinking about our public health role and what it means for us as pharmacists. We started talking about why we decided to join and she mentioned that she had been feeling increasingly uncomfortable when giving advice to new mums about losing weight and healthy eating. How could they take her seriously when she was overweight herself? This made me wonder what the public expects from healthcare professionals.
Of course, no one would expect us to start taking drugs or start smoking so we can better understand what an addict is going through but what about those of us who do smoke, or take drugs or who are obese? As my midwife acquaintance, suggests, isn’t it hypocritical to provide advice to patients on smoking, drugs and healthy eating when we are not tackling our own addictions or at least trying to lead healthy lives?
Expecting those with a public health role to act as role models maybe a step too far for some people but it is the main reason why the leader of the weight management class is so effective. She has successfully made changes to her lifestyle which has enabled her to lose weight, so she understands what her members are going through. In my first week she contacted me mid-week to make sure I was getting to grips with the plan. When I had my first (and only) bad week I received a text message to remind me how well I’d done up until that point. If she hadn’t walked in my shoes would she appreciate the value of these little words of encouragement? Maybe. But having that understanding helps her to deliver an excellent service.
That’s not to say that we can’t support our patients if we haven’t been there ourselves. As pharmacists we give advice to patients daily. Whether it’s managing cholesterol or diabetes, quitting smoking or losing weight, the list is endless. In my opinion, what my patients care about is not that I’ve been through the same things as them, but rather that I am going to be there to encourage and support them through their journey.