Lockdowns, social restrictions and vaccinations have not solved covid and customers are asking questions that can’t be answered, writes Ultan Molloy.

As I write this, we’re a couple of weeks out from Santa coming, and it’s a fairly hectic time of year. I wonder what shape we’ll be in come January, when this will be published? We’re taking four days off, closed in both pharmacies. I think we all just need the break after two years of Covid-19, a busy November, and what’s shaping up to be a busier December, with work compacting into fewer days. We’ve the Covid-19 vaccination boosters on top of it now also, by choice, mind you.

I’ve had it up to my back teeth with our restrictions, and am highly motivated to get as many as are willing to get vaccinated and boosted, just to help us move back toward the old normal. Vaccinating helps the finances somewhat too, of course, but comes at the cost of disruption, pharmacist and admin time, and resources.

“When is this going to finish?”; “I suppose we’ll be getting a vaccine every year for this now?”; and “Will the HSE send me on an up-to-date digital cert?” are among the many questions I don’t have answers for from many anxious customers and patients who are visiting us at present.

We don’t appear to have herd immunity developing. We have great vaccine uptake overall as a country, which is encouraging, but with:

  • A mutating virus;
  • Waning immunity post-infection and vaccination;
  • Increasing complacency in some cases post-vaccination, and in general with restriction fatigue;
  • Community transmission, potentially even from those who are vaccinated, with up to 60 per cent of people being asymptomatic, it’s hard to see how we can drive Covid-19 out of our communities.

Management of it in public health through an annual vaccination, much like the flu vaccine, is a potential scenario I suspect could well play out.

What this means for us is, if we want to continue to offer vaccination as a community service through our pharmacies, we’ll need to resource it better and manage our inputs. Some local GPs have stopped offering the service, are referring people to us, and we’re a long way off having the whole community boosted, even in the recommended cohorts we’re presently prioritising.

Elf on the shelf is keeping a good eye on things on the home front. Our fiveyear-old is asking why her four-year-old sister is “saying lots of things that aren’t true” about the Elf coming alive at night, flying around and getting up to mischief, like putting lipstick on their dolls! Logic vs imagination and emotion at work. I’m starting to think it’s more nature than nurture when it comes to how and who we grow up into. They’re all great craic at the moment, mind you, and a fantastic antidote to stress on the work front.

We’re going through a PSI re-registration and application for a new GMS contract due to an administrative change of beneficial ownership in the midst of things also. Sure, why not. Bring it on!

You have them spoiled, you know?” said Sharon, who’s been with us as a locum, albeit now part of our family, since we opened in Ballindine over 14 years ago. I didn’t know, or consider it, to be honest. I do know, however, that familiarity can breed contempt both ways, and that minimising waiting times, driving efficiencies, having a friendly service, along with maintaining a high quality of care, can be a challenge.

There’s a sweet spot there, isn’t there, between bending over backwards for customers, and treating them as an annoyance in one’s day. Managing their expectations is key.

That being said, many don’t have a ready reference point for an alternative pharmacy experience years on from initially joining us. We had one lady leave us last year, for example, and take herself and her husband’s scripts with her, as we were “not good enough”, having had three staff running around pulling items together for her prescription at one stage.

The 10-minute wait was all too much for this retiree. Things to do, places to go and all that. I have given many
a stick to beat us with though, driving efficiencies, that when they break down through a ‘bad day’, overload, training issues, a bottle-neck, or other, it can lead to customers getting very frustrated. I met this lady a few days later, let’s call her ‘L’, in the local supermarket and had forgotten about her telling me off for our poor service, etc, and said “Hi L, how are things… nice day out,” etc, and moved along. I remembered afterward mind you, but it felt good to normalise our ‘relationship’ somewhat with that little chat.

She came back the following week with a bunch of flowers for me (the only one I’ve ever received from a woman, or a man, as it happens!) and asked could she come back to us with her prescriptions. Her new reference point was another local pharmacy, now closed, that dispensed several errors in her blister pack medicines, missed her prescription completely, and missed a page from her husband’s script from the blister pack.

I was delighted to have her back, truth be told, but did give the condition that she would need to order ahead if there was anything urgent, and be patient at the counter when she came to us in future. It’s been all very easy with her since, thanks to her different reference point.

Did you know that people in some countries in Asia, who may have to walk for a day to get to a doctor, are more satisfied with their health service than we are in Ireland? Reference point indeed. Unreasonable expectations are in the mix there somewhere also in many cases.

I had another customer who left us after tripping on the mat at our front door. We went to her at the time and asked was she okay, brought her to the doctor across the road, and subsequently dispensed some anti-inflammatories, checking in with her again at the time for her trouble. She took her script, and her family’s, elsewhere afterward, and I didn’t notice for some time. I rang her when I did to ask had something else happened, and she told me that the right thing for me to do would have been to ring her in the following days to see how she was.

So there you go. I dropped the ball on that one. Hopefully she’s being fantastically cared for, with regular phone calls, in the pharmacy she’s moved to. Thirteen years of doing our best by her and her family, and off she goes. C’est la vie!

Anyway, so where was I. Reasonable expectations. One person’s ‘reasonable’ is often another person’s ‘unreasonable’ though, isn’t it. One has to benchmark, look in the mirror, consider our duty of care, and then back oneself and one’s team. I wasn’t great at the latter in the past, assuming that ‘the customer is always right’, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary on The Late Late retorting, “the customer isn’t always right… they’re nearly always wrong”, they are certainly not always reasonable in their expectations of us community pharmacists.

“It’s a job where you have to be able to plámás people” a colleague said recently, and she’s spot-on. You have to be able to flatter, to knock a bit of craic and cheer out of even the most miserable and demanding, and feed one’s soul on those customers who brighten our days just by coming through the door.

The ones who’ve complained about us to the PSI for having “medicines in the toilet” (untrue) after we let them use the staff facilities as they were under pressure, and another for cutting scored tablets to make the appropriate dose for their husband when his blood pressure tablets went short, are no doubt happily cared for elsewhere now. Many dead customers, I miss regularly when they come tomind. Some beautiful people.

Many alive that have moved elsewhere, and I’m not sorry they’ve moved. I’ll leave it at that, lest I head down the Fr Ted Crilly Golden Cleric award route! It’s unfortunate that the empty cans can often take up a disproportionate amount of our good time and energy. I’m sure there are many I/we have dropped the ball on, and had taken for granted too. Mea culpa.

We’re lucky in community pharmacy though, in spite of our challenges, as I remind myself. We’ve been open through the pandemic. We’ve kept people in employment and cared for and supported our communities. Our team has pulled together and people have stepped up when they were needed. Here’s to more of that good stuff for all of us in the year ahead.

CONTRIBUTOR INFORMATION

Contributor Information

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. Ultan can be contacted on 086 1693343.