Over the last two years, our profession as well as much of our lives have been defined by COVID-19. Suffice to say, we are all keen to consign the “pandemic era” to the past.
Instead of emerging completely from COVID-19, the focus has shifted to learning to live with it while getting on with our lives. Community pharmacy has played an important role in this regard. We have administered almost 900,000 COVID-19 vaccinations so far and it is clear that pharmacy will play a vital role in protecting people from the disease for the foreseeable future. This is a huge achievement of which we should all be proud. The results of the Ipsos MRBI Veracity Index survey which shows that pharmacists are the most trusted of any profession in Ireland is another source of justifiable pride for community pharmacy.
The pandemic has absorbed the focus and energy of whole sectors of society, including government and has stalled progress on a number our key strategic targets such as a new pharmacy contract and the continued expansion of pharmacy services. With the emergency phase of the pandemic behind us, there is no excuse not to advance these issues and we remain determined in our focus to ensure progress in these areas.
The single most urgent issue facing community pharmacy is the shortage of available pharmacists required to keep pharmacies open and accessible to patients and customers. It is becoming increasingly difficult for community pharmacies to attract and retain young pharmacists. Community pharmacy is now beginning to feel a real pinch due to this shortage. If this is allowed to develop it will impact on patient care and pharmacy services in the future.
The IPU has established a Pharmacy Workforce Group which is working to identify and promote practical responses to help alleviate the problem of staff shortages. These proposed responses include the establishment of a new school of pharmacy and working to ensure a less time consuming and burdensome process for non-EU pharmacists to become registered here. The IPU has raised this issue with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and we are working with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI) to shorten the registration process.
Our ongoing work to improve community pharmacy and to encourage pharmacists to remain in the profession continues. We are consistently engaged with government in efforts to reduce the level of administration foisted on the sector and to expand the range of services we provide within our communities. These are not overnight fixes but we will not relent in our efforts to make community pharmacy better for the sector and for the people it serves.
The newly elected Pharmacy Contractors Committee (PCC) at its inaugural meeting considered its priorities and strategic positioning for the coming year. The committee noted the Minister for Health’s commitment to the ‘commencement’ of pharmacy contract talks this year.
As we are all too aware there have been many false dawns around contract talks before and the committee agreed that its priority must be to seek increased fees for community pharmacists rather than primarily pursuing a new pharmacy contract. Although of course the two may need to be pursued hand in hand.
The PCC understands that to successfully lobby and agitate for an increase in fees, one clear strategy must be understood and followed by all IPU members in unison working together.
We know that achieving any increase will be very difficult and, unlike other sectors, pharmacy has very little coercive power to bring to bear on government. However, as we demonstrated in 2019 when we successfully resisted a proposed cut to our fees, we can achieve our aims with a clear strategy and a cohesive political campaign. The PCC is now working on what our claim for increased fees should be to ensure the sustainability of our services. It will then work on a clear strategy, in consultation with you, the members, in relation to the delivery of this target. This will not be an easy battle but, be assured, we are up for the task.
The Falsified Medicine Directive has been an issue for community pharmacy since its inception. The approach taken to address the issue of falsified medicines in the supply chain brings to mind the analogy of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. However, having staved off its implementation for a number of years, we are nonetheless approaching the end of the ‘Use and Learn’ period.
The IPU continues to represent members to ensure that the system in place for authentication is streamlined and to ensure that members are supported in any queries when interacting with this system. Our position to the Department of Health is very clear: This is simply not a priority for community pharmacies and without adequate resourcing for this process, we will only be able to allocate limited resources to this activity.
A key element of our work is the support of members who are subject to disciplinary procedures with the Regulator. The IPU consistently supports and counsels its members from an early stage in any Fitness to Practice inquiries that arise. We work collaboratively with the PSI in order to ensure mutual understanding regarding the code of conduct and legislation as it relates to our members.
A successful and keenly contested regional committee elections process concluded in January and has brought in some new faces at the committee tables. The composition of our committees is very impressive and bodes well for continued strong professional guidance and representation on our behalf in the years to come.
We are in the process of finalising the Review of the IPU Constitution following an extensive process of consultation with members. A draft Constitution has been prepared to incorporate the vote of members in that consultation process and the membership will be requested to vote on this document in the next number of weeks to decide if a new Constitution will be introduced.
The creation of the recently convened IT Steering Group (ITSG) is an exciting development and points the way forward for Irish pharmacy. The Group is focused on utilising the potential for technology to improve the service we provide and help our businesses perform more efficiently. It will work on delivering practical and workable approaches to support community pharmacy in important areas of its work. The ITSG will examine how progress can be made on key initiatives such as appropriate and applicable use of pharmacy information (e.g. the detection and management of medicine shortages) and medicines information (i.e. the IPU’s National Health Product Catalogue); collaboration with the HSE on their eHealth and ePharmacy programmes; emerging pharmacy technology requirements; and, how ICT can help deliver efficiencies in pharmacy operations.
As you are aware, the process to recruit a new Secretary General is well underway and I hope to be in position to announce our new Secretary General in the near future. I would like to thank Darragh O’Loughlin for all of his work with the Irish Pharmacy Union. As a volunteer committee member, as President and as Secretary General he has given great service to the Union for over 20 years. We all wish him well.
President of the Irish Pharmacy Union