Workload pressure isn't going to change, but how we work with it can, suggests Noel Wicks.

The recent media spotlight on workplace pressures in the pharmacy must have resonated with many in our sector. It seems almost inevitable that these pressures continue to rise, with increasing numbers of scripts to dispense and services to provide set against a backdrop of reduced funding. It looks like the pressure on businesses, individuals, systems and teams to perform will only increase.

Of course, this pressure isn’t unique to our sector and barely a day goes by without hearing or reading about fellow healthcare professionals being put in similar positions. The situation has been particularly acute with winter pressures and it seems almost surreal that in January a whole month of planned operations were put on hold to cope with the crisis. This highlights the phenomenal strain felt across healthcare, and the desperate actions that are becoming increasingly common in an attempt to keep the system going.

Pressures in community pharmacy seem to be intensifying as the cuts continue to bite. With many areas now encouraging GPs not to prescribe products that can be bought over the counter, the inevitable fallout will be that further strain is put on pharmacies, as well as others in the system, such as A&E.

What can we do about it?

In my mind, there are only two ways to meet the future, and that’s to either work harder or to work smarter.

It’s relatively easy to work harder short term as it’s a quick fix, but doing so leaves people slowly but surely burning themselves out over the longer term. So, working smarter, or more efficiently, has to be the way forward.

The philosophy of ‘lean thinking’ isn’t new to business, but I don’t think this comes naturally to pharmacy or pharmacists. We tend to become attached to processes and ways of doing things and are reluctant to change. This is equally true of pharmacy staff. This inertia around change is partly about the amount of time and energy it takes to make wholesale changes in your daily working routines, and the fact that people take comfort from routine.

Saving precious time

What is even more difficult in pharmacy is that, on the whole, the efficiencies available to us come in small degrees, but in very large numbers. It’s a gain of a second here or three seconds there, but repeated thousands of times every day and week.

The little packets of inefficiency over the course of a year add up to an enormous amount of time. How do I know this? Last year we invested in having experts who have been working all over the UK with independents and multiples alike to help them identify and remove these small inefficiencies. Our pharmacist spent a day with the team from a company called Velresco and through a series of activities and presentations we learned, not only how to identify inefficiencies, but how to change processes to remove them.

Based on their experience of looking at a range of pharmacies they identified specific changes that meant on average 40 hours a month of pharmacists’ time could be repurposed to other staff. They also identified that, on average, 60 hours of dispensary time was made available to help absorb these delegated tasks.

New thinking

This sort of thinking has to be the way forward – as, let’s face it, the sorts of seismic changes that provided efficiencies for us all in the past, such as moving from typewriters to computers, have already been utilised.

While 2018 is going to be a very lean year, there are things you can do to remain in control. NPA members can access Velresco’s top 10 list of recommended actions for pharmacies via their website, and anyone can sign up for one day courses and bespoke on-site analysis of your pharmacy plus support in implementing changes.

As Einstein famously said: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking”. Let’s make 2018 the year to change our thinking.

  • Noel Wicks is a pharmacist and independent pharmacy owner


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