Boots on the ground: the ongoing day-to-day fight for pharmacy

Ross Ferguson

WHAT a missed opportunity. Presented with the option to robustly fight for pharmacists and patients, to speak out passionately about oppressive, dangerous, and damaging pharmacy working conditions, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) has failed to capitalise and demonstrate that it is in touch with the serious concerns of the profession.

To be frank, I’m fed up with diplomacy. I want the RPS to acknowledge pharmacy’s dirty little open secret and call out the perpetrators. I’m sure the majority of pharmacists want to see this too, rather than an asinine statement which appears to have been purposely designed to avoid anything that anybody could construe as being critical.

Show us the passion and ditch the diplomacy — sometimes a well-rehearsed massaged message just doesn’t cut it. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s what the members want and expect. I certainly don’t think it’ll do the membership numbers any harm.

I’m not a cheerleader for the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA), although I do have insurance with them, but they just seem to get it. They have a clear mission and I’m impressed by their approach and ability to focus on the big issues, and they don’t have a problem upsetting people who obstruct their path. They have led this issue from the start — I’d like to have seen the RPS take on that role with equal vigour.

As for the crisis itself (and it is one, for the profession and patients), it is clear that no lessons have been learned thus far. The concerns of Greg Lawton were simply dismissed by the Boots spokesperson as yesterday’s news. He also said his door was always open if people had concerns — having an open door is great, but how many people will use it after the way the concerns highlighted in the programme were dealt with?

Something else that irritated me was the mention of company SOPs and the conclusion that everything would be OK if they were just followed. SOPs aren’t a panacea — if there are fundamental flaws in the working environment, then they are less than useless. Except of course if you can use them to deflect the attentions of the regulator from senior management towards responsible pharmacists (RPs) and also use them against pharmacists should they, for whatever reason, have acted contra to an SOP.

Last year Boots appeared to have been busy managing its reputation, allegedly sending a message to employees not to engage in social media chatter, or speak to the GPhC (if a screenshot of that message on Twitter is to be believed). Some may see this as censorship and control freakery, others as a necessary evil, but it certainly doesn’t sound good and this type of attitude is unlikely to stimulate an open and transparent culture in the organisation.

The text of the message read: “A reminder: No store based colleague including the pharmacist and store manager have permission to enter into any external correspondence other than in person or via the telephone (or in conjunction with the delivery of a pharmacy service) without first seeking guidance.

“This includes all forms of written correspondence (emails/texts/social media) with patients and any contact whatsoever with external bodies (e.g. NHS England, GPhC, CCGs).”

Now, read that again and let it sink in.

I want the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) to be tough, challenging, but also understanding. Pharmacists are asking for help, they are under immense pressure, they can’t fight this ongoing battle alone. There is a mismatch between the GPhC’s response and what pharmacists on the ground are experiencing. Why is that? How can we ensure the GPhC sees the real picture and take steps to protect patients from harm and reduces the negative impact on pharmacist health and wellbeing? Yes, pharmacists in pharmacies are best placed to decide on staffing levels, but they aren’t being allowed to. That is the problem.

And finally, there are some elephants in the room that have yet to be mentioned, and it does raise questions in pharmacists’ minds. Perhaps the most glaring is that our RPS chief executive, Paul Bennett, was superintendent and director of professional services at Boots from 2008-2013. RPS members and potential members will, quite rightly, be keen to hear how he tackled this crucial issue and what his thoughts are on the subject now.

Other questions pharmacists have asked me in relation to the RPS include: what has the RPS done directly to tackle this long-standing problem (other than publish guidance)? How is the RPS, as a leadership body, challenging employers and the GPhC? Is the RPS beholden to Boots financially in any way?

As a member I’m certainly interested in the answers. I don’t take any pleasure in posing these questions (the opposite in fact, it’s very uncomfortable), but these and others have to be answered if we want an open debate.

And finally, let’s be absolutely clear, this isn’t a single employer issue occurring in a handful of pharmacies; it’s much bigger than that (pharmacists on the ground know this), and it’s one that poses a serious threat to the profession and to the public. The community pharmacy funding cuts certainly aren’t going to improve things.

Now isn’t a time for being diplomatic, defensive, or divisive, it’s a time for action, collaboration and positive outcomes.

1 Comment on Boots on the ground: the ongoing day-to-day fight for pharmacy

  1. Don’t you think the RPS are actually partly to blame? By allowing the number of schools of pharmacy, and therefore the number of pharmacists, to be increased they have actually devalued the individual pharmacist? The attitude of companies now is “if you don’t like it then we’ll get someone else”. Is that also a contributing factor to the alleged problem of companies forcing out older, more experienced pharmacists, for cheaper younger versions?