It wasn’t so long ago that pharmacists were among the healthcare heroes being applauded nightly as the COVID-19 pandemic raged.
I remember news images of pharmacists working long hours, reusing scant supplies of protective masks and gloves, but diligently reporting to work to help sick patients get their medications… and also scarce supplies such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer. When COVID tests and vaccines rolled out, pharmacists again were out front, providing education and services.
But where do pharmacists stand now?
New, Alarming Levels of Burnout
In September and October, pharmacy staffs at some CVS and Walgreens locations participated in three-day walkouts. In response to the Oct. 30 walkout, Michael D. Hogue, CEO of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), said, “APhA stands with every pharmacist who participated in the walkout today. The bottom line is that we support every pharmacist’s right to work in an environment with staffing that supports your ability to provide patient care. We know that these are steps you deem necessary in order to be heard by your employer.”
Hogue referenced “workplace issues, leading to frustrations and burnout, affecting [pharmacists’] mental health and well-being.” And studies confirm the prevalence of those problems.
Research from the University of Illinois Chicago’s (UIC) College of Pharmacy showed that pharmacists were facing high burnout rates in the 40- to 50-percent range in 2019. UIC said burnout “was most often attributed to a mix of factors: a high-stakes, high-workload environment; staffing inadequacies; and inefficient work processes, including cumbersome documentation requirements.”
Those stressors bled into pharmacists’ personal lives, UIC noted, making it difficult for many pharmacists to achieve a positive work/life balance.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
UIC researchers noted “abrupt changes to their traditional workflow while isolation, the loss of support systems, and the impact of the illness and death further strained already challenging jobs. Pharmacists, in particular, found themselves incorporating COVID-19 testing while also balancing high hospital censuses and prescription volume. The work taxed the body, the mind, and the soul.”
Brianna McQuade, PharmD, MHPE, led what the university describes as “the first study exploring burnout among health-system pharmacists during the COVID-19 pandemic using two validated burnout assessments.” The results were published in the summer of 2022 in the Journal of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy (JACCP).
The study is called “Stratification of burnout in health-system pharmacists during the COVID-19 pandemic: A focus on the ambulatory care pharmacist.”
McQuade and her team sent surveys to pharmacists at two academic health systems in Chicago. Participants used the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory and the Maslach Burnout Inventory for their assessments. In all, 113 pharmacists completed the survey.
The results showed 88.4 precent of ambulatory care pharmacists and 87.1 percent of non-ambulatory health-system pharmacists were at high risk for burnout. Three of four participant said they felt higher levels of burnout because of the pandemic. As a major stressor, they cited the need to prepare and administer COVID vaccines while still being expected to carry on with their regular duties.
“These results,” the UIC researchers said, “should serve as a call to action for pharmacy leadership to address and mitigate burnout and burnout risk among health-system pharmacists.”
So Much Industry Potential… But How About the People?
Ironically, the future for American pharmacies looks intriguing, full of new opportunities to expand how pharmacies serve patients. For example, last month, the Georgia State Board of Pharmacy announced licensure requirements and policies for pharmacies to dispense low THC oil to qualifying patients. Georgia is the first state to make this move.
The National Home Infusion Association continues to push for Medicare to fully embrace home infusion. “Unlike other stakeholders — including health systems, drug manufacturers, epidemiologists, pharmacists, nurses, and more — the federal government has failed to take full advantage of capacity and efficiencies provided by home infusion,” the NHIA said in an October news announcement. Two current bills — S. 1976 and H.R. 4014, both known as the Preserving Patient Access to Home Infusion Act — are seeking to improve and expand home infusion access for Medicare beneficiaries.
Yet at a time when pharmacies are desperately needed, especially in rural communities with few other healthcare professionals, KFF (formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation) noted in 2021 research that independent pharmacies were struggling to stay open. KFF noted that more than 1,200 independent rural pharmacies closed from 2003 to 2018, a closure rate of more than 16 percent.
I don’t live in a rural area, but the staff at my local pharmacy treats me like an old friend, while remaining entirely professional. The pharmacists and pharmacy technicians know how I’ve reacted to past medications and always offer to discuss possible side effects of new prescriptions. They update me as new vaccines become available.
And with every vaccination, from flu to COVID booster to shingles, the pharmacist teases, “Do you want me to write a note that says you shouldn’t do housework the rest of the day?”
Pharmacies are a critical part of our healthcare infrastructure, and evolving technology continues to expand the services, products, and care that pharmacies can provide. But we need to simultaneously care for the people who dispense the medications, administer the vaccines, run the COVID tests, recommend the medically necessary equipment, keep patient records up to date and accurate, and educate patients on best practices and outcomes.
As with any other healthcare specialty, the beating heart of a pharmacy is its people — its pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, pharmacy specialists, managers, clerks, dispensers, and assistants. They are an indispensable part of the healthcare continuum. They deserve to be treated that way.
Image: istockphoto/Chonlatee Sangsawang