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There’s no such thing as ‘free’ advice at the pharmacy counter but it certainly has value, writes Ultan Molloy

July, eh! And what does your world look like today? As I write this on 16 May, I’m intrigued and optimistic about what the next two months will bring for us. Hotels will be open, most of the country will have received their first vaccine, and many indeed their second, and at this point, I’m truly not bothered if community pharmacists are involved soon or not at this point, as long as the job gets done. By all accounts, the mass vaccination centre in Galway appears to be running efficiently, and people’s experiences that I’ve heard of to date have all been very positive. The ‘old normal’ has never felt so close, and so attractive.

We are at the end of another beautiful weekend in the West here, as I wind down for the evening and make some notes on what I want to achieve during the week ahead. Our new business is thankfully growing steadily, as are item numbers dispensed in community pharmacy, and I’m feeling optimistic about the rest of 2021. We also have a board meeting this week to review the year that was 2020 for the company, our achievements, and to set some direction into the future. I could again bring you some of my thoughts around what the future holds for the sector, although focusing on what appears to be in my limited control will perhaps be a better investment of our energy.
I run out of inspiration from time-to-time regarding what would be useful or interesting to write in these pieces.

The initial intention after being asked to contribute was to offer insights that would support readers in developing their own leadership and business excellence. What has evolved since then are more musings around my own experience, concerns, scepticism, frustration and sometimes cynicism. I have received texts, calls and emails from readers and colleagues that suggest the content is relatable, and valuable for many on that basis, which is great of course. My head is presently preoccupied, however, with wondering where I can really add more value for the stakeholders in my life, and in my own career.

Value at the counter is the most sensible place to consider for our purposes here. I would think it isn’t always
our starting point when we consider strategic business decisions, and how we investment in our retail community pharmacy business operations. This is also in my head, given our imminent board meeting.

I mentioned “good money makes good art” to a family member earlier today, who told me some local hairdressers were charging €40 for men’s haircuts during the lockdown from their houses. The ‘art’ metaphor in this case being a bit of a stretch! I understand the necessity of having occasional haircuts, and that one can readily spend €40 in some of the posh establishments in Dublin for a men’s haircut. Often, however, when we spend above the norm on something, we will value it more. Us humans associate higher price with higher quality.

Where does that leave us pharmacists are offering ‘free’ advice at the counter? Indeed, this word ‘free’ is used in much of our self-promotion and PR by those who partake. It’s not free though, is it? We pay ourselves, as owner operators to be at the counter, or pay for the time of a member of our pharmacy team to be at the counter, for our patients, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

Often, however, when we spend above the norm on something, we will value it more

What pays for those wages is primarily the profits from our dispensing business. One would find it very difficult in the majority of pharmacies to run a business that is front-of-house heavy, without serious buying power, economies of scale, etc. Even at that, for example McCauley Pharmacy Group, a chain of 35 pharmacies, has made a €5.16 million loss in 2019, and a €3.1 million loss in 2020. It’s not exactly the gravy train it used to be, is it?
Scarcity also creates demand, of course. It’s one of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence. We’re hardly scarce, however. We stayed open through it all though, didn’t we, offering this ‘free’ advice? Our communities have never been better served by community pharmacies over the last year.

‘Free advice’, open long hours, extended services to include deliveries, shop fit-out upgrades for infection control, etc. We are the most trusted profession in the most recent Ipsos MRBI poll. We are not scarce though, and nor does our main paymaster care about what is arguably ‘unfair’, having had over 10 years of FEMPI cuts. What power do we have to influence, when we offer free advice, long hours, and there’s no-one tapping on the local TD’s door, saying ‘I can’t get a pharmacist to see my sick mother’ on the weekend. Why would the Government invest any more money into the community pharmacy sector?

So, to the value that we offer at the counter. What can we do about how we manage this, and visitors’ perception of this? It needs more of my time and consideration, although I know it is unlikely to serve us well personally, or in terms of our business, if we continue to give ‘free’ advice to those who do not value what we have to offer. It’s a difficult one to untangle, and there’s always the building-up of goodwill, and sure, they might start to bring their prescriptions to us if we keep giving them our time for free. But will they?

What is within our control as pharmacists in our businesses, as colleagues, as friends, and in our other roles is what I’ll be considering over the coming months. While we may not feel valued in some of our roles, we can certainly decide where we give our time and energy in each of our roles, and manage ourselves, and our teams accordingly.

Anyway, hope you’re having a fantastic July! It’s time for some R&R after putting in a big shift over the last year. Burnout is a real thing. If you haven’t done so already, have a look at yourself, value yourself, and give yourself what you need to recover from what has been a very tough year for many. And I’m not talking about a long weekend off to ‘recover’. Mind yourself, so you can continue to offer your value to the world.

Ultan Molloy
Ultan Molloy

Ultan Molloy is a business and professional performance coach, pharmacist, facilitator and development specialist. He works with other pharmacists, business owners and third parties to develop business strategies.