Though they rarely appeared in national headlines during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacists played many roles on the frontlines. From providing COVID-19 vaccinations and testing, to being among the most accessible health care providers, pharmacists continue to be pillars for pandemic support.
The cost of support
When the first public health orders went out, many health care services closed their doors, including family doctor offices. Fear of contracting COVID-19 left many Canadians avoiding hospitals and other high-risk areas — leaving their local pharmacies as the most accessible option for health support.
“Pharmacists are always there, all the pharmacies stayed open and they stepped up to support the health care system,” said third-year PharmD student Grace Li.
But the work of pharmacists to support their communities took its toll. Studies have revealed that pharmacists reported higher levels of burnout compared to before the pandemic, and experts are calling for improved support services, more dialogue and better mental health resources.
According to PharmD student Aneet Grewal, the pandemic was especially stressful for pharmacists, who not only had to continue with their regular duties but had additional ones related to the pandemic, like administering vaccines and providing information to the community.
Starting in March 2021, pharmacies in BC were called upon to support the vaccine roll-out effort, with hundreds of pharmacies across the province aiding the cause. Other provinces also saw significant impacts — in Alberta, more COVID-19 vaccines were distributed by pharmacies than the provincial health service. Efforts to mass vaccinate were even extended to PharmD students who were hired to assist.
“[The COVID-19 pandemic] really highlighted the scope of practice that pharmacists have,” said Grewal.
A study published in 2021 compared stress and burnout levels among American healthcare workers during the pandemic and found that pharmacists had a higher work overload, higher fear exposure and higher anxiety levels than physicians. The study also found that just under half of the pharmacists surveyed were experiencing burnout.
Burnout is a term used to describe the “combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and low personal achievement caused by the chronic stress of the medical field.” It holds many drawbacks, both for the healthcare worker and the patient.
On an individual level, burnout is linked with physical outcomes like cardiovascular diseases and respiratory infections, alongside psychological and affective issues like symptoms of depression and job dissatisfaction. The effects of burnout also affect the community — lower patient satisfaction and medical errors are more likely when medical professionals are experiencing burnout.
Initiatives are mounting to support pharmacists and address the wellness issues made clear by the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, the Canadian Pharmacists Association launched the Pharmacy Workforce Wellness initiative to support pharmacist mental health. More recently, the theme for Pharmacist Appreciation Month in March 2022 was dedicated to “appreciating pharmacists talking about burnout and the stress that everyone’s had,” said Grewal.
Not just filling prescriptions
Pharmacy students interviewed by The Ubyssey emphasized that pharmacy is more than its stereotypical image of filling up prescriptions.
“Pharmacists are more than [pill counters],” Li said.
John Lee, a fourth-year PharmD student, acknowledged that the scope of practice for pharmacists is much broader than most people imagine. The profession can include your local community pharmacist found in Save-On-Foods or Walmart, but can also have roles in hospitals, advocacy and the pharmaceutical industry.
In addition to the many forms pharmacists take to support their communities, Lee noted that it’s “hard to have a good understanding of what pharmacists can do, because it’s not as standardized compared to maybe other health care roles.”
Pharmacists are regulated by independent provincial bodies or governments and therefore their scope of practice varies province to province. In BC, pharmacists can only initiate prescriptions in an emergency, while Albertan pharmacists can initiate prescriptions in multiple instances.
Despite differences in practice, pharmacists play a crucial role in our healthcare system, and did even before a global pandemic.
“Pharmacists are always there, just supporting the community,” Grewal said.
—With files from Shane Atienza