During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world had to adapt their healthcare systems and implement new policies to contain the spread of the pandemic. More importantly, governments had to deduce different ways to encourage citizens to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and provide protection to populations at risk.
Recently, we spoke to Dr. Peter Pitts, former Associate Commissioner at the US FDA, who currently runs the New York-based NGO Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, about the role of pharmacies when it comes to vaccinations.
“Pharmacists can play an important role within their communities as they are highly trained healthcare professionals who tend to be underappreciated. This is, of course, not to say that they should replace physicians; however, it is important to note that pharmacists can be an additional trusted educational source for people within each community as people tend to have easier access to them – not to mention that it also tends to be cheaper to visit a pharmacist.” Excerpts:
What roles did pharmacies have during COVID-19?
During the pandemic, pharmacies that provided vaccinations were a source of convenience, trust, and availability. Many cities across the globe, including Abu Dhabi, implemented pharmacy-based vaccination programmes, which proved to be successful because they provided easier access to the public as it was often difficult, and even scary, to visit a doctor at the time. In addition, people in communities tend to trust their local pharmacists and find it quite easy to visit them when need be.
As such, from there, we begin to ask ourselves how we help increase other types of vaccinations the way we helped increase the number of COVID vaccinations given that the goal is to increase the number of vaccinations that protect people against preventable diseases, especially for children, older populations, and those at risk. For example, we noticed that flu vaccinations rose around 40 per cent when pharmacies were allowed to provide the vaccinations. However, to really make an impact, legislation will need to be put in place to teach pharmacists how to provide vaccinations, as that is currently not part of the curriculum.
Dr. Peter Pitts
What lessons learned in the US do you think can be applied here in the UAE?
The most important lesson we learned from COVID-19 was how many great accomplishments can be achieved when members of the healthcare ecosystem work together. From the successful COVID vaccination programme in Abu Dhabi, there is a lot that can be taken to use in the future. With around 70 vaccines available around the globe, the most important question would then be which ones are most worth introducing in pharmacies and in what order they should be introduced. The UAE has the advantage of a smaller population that is modern and demographically young. When it comes to vaccination programmes, these can make the process of designing the programme itself much easier for the relevant stakeholders and partners. There are many important lessons the UAE can learn from based on the Abu Dhabi programme. Now, it is about deciding what works best within each emirate.
How can we better equip pharmacists to deal with raising awareness?
In the case of raising awareness of vaccines, health literacy becomes quite important because you need to teach people the value of vaccines, and that is where pharmacists can play a very important role, especially when it comes to face-to-face interactions on a daily basis. One thing we saw in the US that can be applied elsewhere was how pharmacists often took the step and started conversations with people who visited the pharmacy even when they came in for something different – it is about taking the opportunity when it presents itself to you.
To help the public achieve health literacy, it is important to implement lifelong learning that starts in schools where children are educated about their health needs and requirements from a young age and are consistently learning when those requirements change. By this, we help people learn to become more aware of their general health and to implement healthy lifestyle choices, and that also includes taking vaccines when necessary. In doing so, we can help promote healthy ageing and help prevent diseases rather than take on the burden of treating them. With time, governments will be able to recognise that vaccines, as a preventive measure, lower healthcare costs by a significant amount.
How do you suggest we tackle the language barriers between pharmacists and the public?
Pharmacists are communications experts, and they are trained to communicate adequately with those around them. One of the problems we see when it comes to vaccinations is the misinformation regarding how they work and what they can do. From what we saw during the COVID pandemic, people can easily be fooled by rumours. Hence, in this case, it is up to the healthcare professionals, including pharmacists, to be respectful to those who lack the knowledge and educate them. By doing so, the public is now able to make comfortable decisions because they are better educated on the matter. To increase compliance when it comes to medications and vaccines, it is important that people do not take them blindly and that, instead, they understand the process and why they are taking one treatment over the other.
This article appears in Omnia Health magazine. Read the full issue online today.