Giving our pharmacists time back to care for patients

Chris Ellett, Director of Transformation

It’s seven months since I started at Well. That’s a short amount of time to transform a business, but so much has happened in that time. More than I had expected.

When a business is going through change, it never ceases to amaze me how mixed the response can be. I expect and encourage this from colleagues but with the spotlight on pharmacy at the moment, it’s not just those inside Well who have a view of what we’re doing.

That’s one of the things I love about my job. Change is hard but it’s worth it when you see the positive impact on colleagues and customers.

Humanising pharmacy

Since working in pharmacy I’ve been told a few times that things like hub and spoke and online pharmacy are somehow ‘dehumanising pharmacy’.

I strongly disagree. Not just because we are doing both at Well, but because in fact the opposite is true. We are using technology to make pharmacy more responsive to the needs of our customers, freeing up our colleagues to spend more time caring for patients. We’re humanising pharmacy.

With growing pressure on NHS budgets and a move to funding based on patient outcomes, dispensing will become more of a commodity and we will be driven to do it at less and less cost.

There is only so much efficiency you can get from optimising people and process. At some point, you have to use technology and automation to support the work our colleagues do in store. Virtually every other industry has been through the same journey and I don’t see pharmacy being an exception.

For a large part of my career I worked alongside scientists in the pharmaceutical industry to improve R&D processes. I used to ask why they’d joined Pharma. The answer was really simple. It wasn’t about paperwork, admin, sitting in meetings or even managing people. It was because they wanted to do science. They wanted to be creative. To use the skills they’d spent many years developing. Sadly, in most cases they spent less time in the lab than they wanted, which was frustrating but more importantly a real waste of their skills.

I’ve spoken to a lot of pharmacists and store colleagues over the last few months and asked a similar question. Unsurprisingly the answer isn’t too dissimilar.

Paperwork: the day-to-day reality for our colleagues

Pharmacists don’t become pharmacists to dispense, check labels or put pills into monitored dosage system (MDS) trays. Pharmacy is about providing care and support to patients. And so, to see our pharmacists and colleagues stuck in the back of our stores with very little time to do this feels like a real missed opportunity.

It’s seeing this that gives me confidence that centralising some of our dispensing is the right thing to do. Lots of our colleagues feel this too but we will have to convince others along the way. That’s a normal part of any change. It’s our job to make the transition as easy as possible for everyone.

A patient perspective

We all lead busy lives. We all have to make choices about where and how we spend our time. Like most people I work all day and find little time to do the things I want to, let alone see a doctor or collect my prescriptions.

For the last 16 years I’ve been living with arthritis. I’ve been on a range on medications, some pretty horrible. Thankfully for the last 4 years I’ve finally got on a medication that suits me, is controlling my condition and is without side effects. It’s not been without challenge. I’ve had to go through two funding requests with my local CCG and had to do a lot of convincing doctors along the way.

As well as my weekly meds, I also have two other regular medications. I’ve been on them for years. As long as I take them, my condition is well managed. I don’t need to see a doctor and I generally can’t get to a pharmacy nearby when they’re open. So how do I solve this dilemma? Thankfully, the emergence of online pharmacy companies means people like me can access the same service in a way that is convenient.

So why does online pharmacy make sense and how different is it really to what we do today? Take a patient that is on a regular repeat, whose doctor uses the NHS Electronic Prescriptions Service (EPS) and has their nominated pharmacy deliver their medication to the patient’s home. This isn’t all that different to an online pharmacy.

Of course, we need to make sure the right controls are in place to ensure patient safety is paramount but if pharmacy can’t figure out how to do this, then who can?

It’s still early days but services like this are becoming more common place. We provide a vital service through our stores and will continue in the future, but we need to find new ways to provide these services that give flexibility and choice to customers.

Our stores will still play an important role. After all, I’ve not found an app that can give a flu jab yet. But that role will evolve and change. We’re building a future that will bring us even closer to our customers. That’s exciting.

Being open and honest

Probably the thing that has surprised people most since I started at Well is how much we’ve shared what we are doing, internally and externally. I’ve even had anecdotal feedback that our competitors are enjoying the free research we are giving them. I hope they like it.

Sharing our progress so far at the Pharmacy Show

There are several reasons why we think doing things in the open is really important. Firstly, in an era of social media it’s really hard to separate internal and external comms. In simple terms, I believe there shouldn’t be one message for colleagues and a different one for customers.

Not only is it inefficient to create two sets of communications, but if we expect our colleagues to communicate effectively to customers then just say the same thing to them both. It really is that simple.

Linked to this is how you get trust and engagement with colleagues. Colleagues often feel management manage the message down the organisation and somehow, they get a diluted version of the truth. Colleagues aren’t silly and should be treated with more respect than sometimes they are. After all, they are the ones that get the work done in our businesses.

The principle I work to is to share the same communications to our owners, senior managers and colleagues working across the business. I’m pretty confident I do this most of the time. Of course, there are some things that are sensitive that can’t be shared, but if you stick as close to the principle more than you don’t, you’re on a good path to getting colleagues on board.

Another challenge is reach. Most big businesses struggle to get messages across the organisation. We have 7,000 colleagues across nearly 800 stores and different offices.

Inevitably this ends up with a project to develop a custom-built, in-house comms tool (that usually fail). If you’re about to do this, then please stop.

There are so many tools out there already that are brilliant and do the job perfectly well. Just use them.

Our blog is public and so can be accessed by a colleague at work or at home on their own device if they want to. We have also made public a lot of other things we’re working on at Well Digital. This helps to build a community of like-minded people inside and outside the business that want to come on the journey with us.

The journey ahead

Lastly, and probably most importantly is that we won’t solve the challenges in pharmacy on our own.

Yes, we are one of the biggest multiples but with a very fragmented market this is going to have to be a joint effort.

Whether you see us as ‘collaborator’ or ‘fierce competitor’ (the words of somebody else from within the industry not mine) the reality is that we’re in it together. The journey has only just started for us at Well but we’ve made great progress already. Well done team.

Chris Ellett
Director of Transformation
Well Pharmacy