Pandemic made us realize the value of local pharmacists | Brunell

While the coronavirus clobbered many businesses, pharmacies were not among them. In fact, since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, local pharmacists have become vital cogs in dispensing crucial medical advice.

Pharmacies adapted their businesses quickly after the pandemic outbreak three years ago. According to December’s issue of Pharmacy Times, drug stores increased their accessibility to curbside service, traditional drive-through windows, and home deliveries.

The effects of the worldwide virus outbreak remain with us. For example, Visual Capitalist reports that 34 percent of America’s small businesses that closed in 2020 remain shuttered today. The remaining operators dramatically changed their way of doing business.

According to Forbes: “Gone are the days of pharmacists being perceived as just distributors of medication. As frontline medical workers and physicians remain busy and focused on combating COVID-19, pharmacists continue to take an active part in providing counsel, education and support to patients who have concerns about the virus.’’

As COVID-19 morphed from mass public inoculation sites to smaller, more spread-out booster shots and testing locations, neighborhood pharmacies have been filling the deployment role.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 300 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered by pharmacies associated with the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. People seem more comfortable with taking medications from their pharmacist than ordering online.

A Pharmacy Times survey conducted in 2021 also revealed that throughout the pandemic, patients continued to prefer their local pharmacist to obtaining medication by mail order: “Although mail order seemed a safe option for those concerned about virus exposure, 85 percent of adults said they would rather connect with a pharmacist.”

More importantly, the survey data showed that 36 percent cited the fact that pharmacists knew them personally and another 32 percent said they relied on their pharmacist to answer questions related to their medications.

The local pharmacist’s role continues to expand. Two years ago, the Washington State Board of Pharmacy was among several other state boards expanding “telepharmacy.” It allows pharmacists to deliver care to patients in remote areas where people may not have access to a pharmacist.

“The pandemic has turned our lives upside-down. In early 2020, we had to transition from brick-and-mortar to virtual systems overnight. We jumped from our business offices to working from home and from in-person medical visits to telehealth. We embraced streaming services, takeout from restaurants and virtual holiday celebrations,” according to U.S. News and World Report (U.S. News).

People were driven to the internet, which has become interwoven into our daily lives. It is highly unlikely pharmacists will step back into the pre-pandemic roles.

U.S. News published a telling report in April 2021. Its findings showed we were not prepared for the infectious nature and deadly capacity of the coronavirus. The report detailed how COVID-19 affected face-to-face communication and in-person socialization. We sheltered in place, worked from home and Zoom-schooled our children.

During the pandemic, patients resorted to telehealth services out of necessity, but it was quickly overloaded even though internet capacity grew. Today, we are readjusting to more conversations rather than social media, emails and internet transactions.

Online pharmacies will continue to develop as well. That technology is designed to drive customers to a series of computer prompts to order medications and away from direct people-to-people contact. Mail order tends reduce costs, but increases frustration while people search for someone to address their problems.

The great online challenge is to more personalize service and to find a way to assign customers with a contact person to track and resolve their problems. Local pharmacists have a distinct advantage because their way of doing business is built on direct customer interaction.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He is a former president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. Contact