As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, a significant strain is felt globally on healthcare systems. With more hospitals overloaded, and rural communities underserved, the public is relying more and more on pharmacy support.
The pharmacy network is, of course, an essential service and it must remain open to serve communities. COVID-19 is not the only disease that patients face, and today, these unsung heroes are battling an invisible enemy that is sweeping our globe. Here is a snapshot of the impact COVID-19 has had on pharmacy operations from the perspective of pharmacists.
Pharmacy support required for access to medications
The single most important reason pharmacies remain open during this period is that medication adherence is critical. Pharmacies are the most accessible options available to patients in Southeast Asia, particularly in rural areas. Patients still need access to medications for pre-existing chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, or tuberculosis (TB) – all of which are affecting millions across this region every day:
• The International Diabetes Federation reports that 88 million adults aged 20-79 live with diabetes in this region. This figure is growing annually with forecasts to reach 153 million by 20451.
• The WHO estimates that non-communicable disease (NCD) deaths are projected to rise by 15%, with the greatest increase in regions of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean2.
• In 2017, the WHO estimated that 4.4 million people fell ill with TB, and an estimated 638,000 people died in this region – which accounted for more than half of global TB deaths3.
The pharmacy network needs knowledge on COVID-19
SwipeRx, the pharmacy mobile app that is pioneered by mClinica Pharmacy Solutions, is ensuring that pharmacists are equipped with a single source of truth to give the right information to patients. As the amount of fake and contradictory news increases, the pharmacy network is reliant on SwipeRx for the most accurate and updated COVID-19 information.
As this mitigates panic by the public, SwipeRx has attracted the attention of USAID, Ministries of Health, and the John Hopkins Coronavirus Research Centre in the Philippines and Cambodia. They are using SwipeRx to collect and disseminate trusted sources of information from the pharmacy network, including caseload estimates, masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizer usage, prevention practices, as well as pharmacist and community sentiment and knowledge.
Pharmacy education must continue
Digital solutions such as pharmacy mobile apps are widely incorporated in the healthcare setting. Not only is its use limited to referencing and clinical decision-making, but it also empowers pharmacy professionals to continue pharmacy education while maintaining quality patient care.
“My job as a pharmacist mainly is to problem-solve. Today, more and more patients are coming into the pharmacy to find out about self-care knowledge and to handle stress in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a pharmacist, it is my job to give them the best advice. To ensure the advice I’m giving out is accurate, I must continue to update myself with the right information from reliable sources. I believe it is the most valuable contribution I can provide to the community as a healthcare professional during this outbreak.”– Ma Liya, Neighbor Care Pharmacy, Cambodia.
“The most important thing I must do as a pharmacist is to put myself in the position of the patient who is looking for a solution to help them with their health – it could be eczema, chest pains, headaches, or a simple toothache. I must ensure that I have the knowledge to provide them with the best possible advice in line with their budget, both for the short and long-term.” – Mikey Reyes Mendoza, Mercury Drug, Philippines
SwipeRx, is enabling pharmacy professionals to consume modules online without having to travel to main cities for traditional face-to-face training events, which reduces the risk of any disease transmission. This ensures that pharmacists stay up-to-date with the latest drug updates while ensuring that they are readily available to address patient needs, while being safe.
The pharmacy network needs protective equipment too
Pharmacies throughout Southeast Asia have adopted social distancing practices, as with any business. However, they have a higher probability of contracting COVID-19 as they are in close contact with patients seeking medication and potential carriers. Thus, the supply of PPE to pharmacies is vital in ensuring pharmacy staff safety. By using SwipeRx, pharmacy professionals are being educated on the correct use of PPE, as effective protection can only be achieved by equipment which is correctly fitted and properly used at all times.
The pharmacy network is eager to step up and provide relief to public healthcare institutions and there has been call-outs from the pharmacy community for Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) to be formed with Ministries of Health. Community pharmacies are able to offer Value-Added Services (VAS) for patients in public facilities as they can help receive prescriptions for medication purchased and counselling. This will be incredibly valuable to the public, but we need to ensure these frontline heroes also remain safe. Pharmacists are increasingly worried about the lack of protective gear available to them.
“The most important thing I have to do right now as a pharmacist is to ensure drug and medical supplies are always available in my pharmacy. Drug availability is important for patients’ health. The needs of drug and medical supplies are also essential especially for us, healthcare professionals. If I’m not able to get gloves, face masks, and other protective gear for my pharmacists and other healthcare professionals, then I’m unable to offer them any protection while they are attending to possible cases.” – Apt. Nida Arum Febriyanti, RSUD Cibabat, Cimahi, Indonesia.
Across Southeast Asia, there have been various efforts by pharmacy associations and regulatory agencies in support of their local frontline heroes during this pandemic. The Malaysian Pharmaceutical Society (MPS) has taken efforts in donating face masks to all community pharmacies for staff self-protection4. In the Philippines, the Professional Regulatory Commission (PRC) has granted 25 to 45 Continuing Professional Development (CPD) units to all frontline professionals who rendered essential services during this state of health emergency5.
mClinica Pharmacy Solutions recently conducted a survey on the SwipeRx platform and revealed insights and actions required by pharmaceutical companies, governments and local communities that are applicable across the Southeast Asian region. Click here for more information.
“In many cases, we are using improvised solutions to protect ourselves and our patients. For example, we have placed tables in front of the pharmacy counter to ensure patients and pharmacists interact from safe distances. I have also seen some pharmacists hang sheets of clear plastic to act as sneeze guards. Street front pharmacists are also using improvised drive-through style windows to talk with patients.” – Koh Li Ching, Healthlane Pharmacy, Malaysia.
Online pharmacy platform growing in importance
Another increasing concern for the pharmacy network is shortages of medicines. In March, Singapore’s The Straits Times reported that Chinese manufacturers and drug ingredient suppliers are facing hurdles due to the pandemic. As a result, production and shipment delays are to be expected6.
The article also highlights that China (as well as India) is a key link in the global pharmaceutical supply chain since it produces many active ingredients for widely used medicines, especially for generic drugs. This includes ibuprofen, acetaminophen, heparin and various antibiotics.
Across the pharmacy network, the situation is being closely monitored as these countries may also restrict exports to tackle domestic shortages. With China reopening last month, however, there is hope that this situation will not occur, but the Straits Times reported that bottlenecks, raw material shortages and quarantine-related staff absences are reducing production capacity.
In Indonesia, SwipeRx launched a Pharmacy Procurement Feature, which helps pharmacies in managing supply bottlenecks during this critical time. The SwipeRx Procurement Feature facilitates the distribution of critical medicines and supplies and supports the pharmacy network with inventory management, digital credit financing and logistics. This ensures the pharmacy remains open and medications can be supplied to patients in need. The volume of transactions on SwipeRx spiked four times its normal volumes on the first day that Indonesia reported its COVID-19 cases due to the high demand for medication and the sudden urge for prompt delivery.
The bottom line: Mobile health solutions are in demand
Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacy professionals had been spending considerable time each day doing tasks on manual systems. Given the increasing pressure placed on pharmacists, spending hours on administrative tasks makes limited financial sense. It is also worrying, as it diverts pharmacists from their primary responsibility-providing patient care.
Communities now more than ever recognize the value of the pharmacy network and the importance of digital pharmacy solutions in keeping pharmacies operating efficiently and effectively. Pharmacists across Southeast Asia have stepped up and they deserve protection, appreciation, and recognition for their efforts.