Helping Patients Navigate Flu Season While Contending with COVID-19, Part 2
By Braheim Knight, RPh
Independent pharmacies have been tasked with enormous responsibilities this year. First, you were called upon to educate the public on the COVID-19 pandemic and adjust your business operations to continue serving your community. Now you need to layer in additional services and precautions, because keeping patients healthy through flu season is going to be yet another challenge. But that’s to be expected since the role of pharmacists during flu season has grown to include both specific clinical offerings in conjunction with a holistic approach to overall wellness, and navigating it successfully is going to take everything you’ve got.
As a Good Neighbor Pharmacy business coach, I’ve been advising pharmacies throughout the course of the pandemic on what they can do to not only survive these difficult times, but develop even closer ties with their community in the process. For this article, I talked with Steve Hoffart, a Good Neighbor Pharmacy advisor and the owner of Magnolia Pharmacy, to better understand how he’s providing next-level care to his patients at a time when so many other businesses are just trying to get by.
Continue offering basic safety servicesThis pandemic is catapulting independent pharmacy owners into thinking about their business in a whole new way. Your first focus should always be keeping your community healthy without adding any new barriers to entry. Don't force your patients inside the store if they're not comfortable with that. Continue offering options like contact-free delivery, drive-through services or curbside pickup through flu season and even after the pandemic subsides. You could even go one step further and add e-commerce options if you didn't have them before to give your customers even more choice in how they shop at your pharmacy.
Focus on your vulnerable population
During any health crisis, your vulnerable population will need extra help to stay well. This includes your elderly patients, as well as people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, diabetes or high blood pressure. They may be scared to get their vaccinations or unsure of what to do, so reach out to them. Whether it's through a prescribed wellness visit, an automated phone call or a social media post, let them know that flu shots are being safely administered at your pharmacy.
While you're focusing on the vulnerable population, consider reaching out to your local nursing homes too. The impact COVID-19 has had there has been severe and they may need your help. Many nursing homes have in-house staff that can administer flu shots, but some don't. You might be able to make a big difference in your community by offering your specialized services.
Make it easy to stay healthy
Focus on simplicity. One of the best ways to improve patient adherence, especially during a pandemic, is by removing as much friction as possible from the prescription refill process. Giving patients a safe, hassle-free way to get their medications will go a long way toward promoting overall wellness. For example, consider syncing up your customers' medications so you can reduce the number of times they need to visit the pharmacy. Just look for ways to limit stress during a very stressful time.
Provide safe clinical offerings
Between COVID-19 and the upcoming flu season, the demand for point-of-care testing will be at an all-time high. Independent pharmacies that decide to offer those services stand to fulfill a significant need in their community, especially in rural areas where physicians are few and far between.
Administering flu vaccinations is also critical to helping your community mitigate a severe outbreak. Encouraging patients to get flu shots will not only help keep them healthy, but it will also lighten the load of a healthcare system still contending with daily cases of coronavirus.
Finally, when the COVID-19 vaccine does become available, you’ll want to be prepared to administer it in your pharmacy as well. Offering these types of convenient patient care services in a safe environment will reinforce your place as a trusted healthcare destination in your community.
Give vaccinations outside if you can
When you're figuring out how to offer point-of-care testing or immunizations, you'll need to consider where to offer those services. Are you going to have a tent set up outside? Will you have a drive-through option? Will your patients wait outside and come in when they're called?
Steve told me that while his pharmacy is being remodeled, his team is delivering immunizations on a bench outside the store and they clean everything between visits.
Anyone who's worried about indoor exposure might consider performing tests or shots outside too.
"If you have the ability to set up immunizations where you can do them in a parking lot under a tent, then consider doing that," Steve suggested. "To me, your risk of transmission outside is minimal. If pharmacies have the ability to put up a tent in the front of their store, that produces a major risk reduction."
Implement strong indoor cleaning protocols
If providing vaccinations or testing outdoors isn't possible, then make your immunization room as simple to clean as possible.
"Clear the room out except for the bare minimum of furniture and what you need to do your shot, so it offers easy to clean up," Steve recommended. "We've learned to keep it simple so we can easily turn things over—almost like a doctor's office where it's very sterile."
Do what feels right for your unique pharmacy and community
Not every independent pharmacy needs to take on every single point-of-care service. This is especially true when the stakes are high, like testing for COVID-19 during flu season. So be mindful of what makes sense for your pharmacy.
For example, Steve told me that he made a conscious decision to skip COVID-19 testing at Magnolia Pharmacy until the benefits of doing so outweigh the potential pitfalls.
"I think more accurate testing is coming and we must provide valid results," he shared. "Until it gets more reliable, COVID-19 testing is something we are not going to push right now. It's a great service, but it's something you need to be cautious about."
As an independent pharmacy, it’s important to not become a prisoner of the moment. First, consider your staff's abilities and capacity before you decide to start offering a new patient care service. Then evaluate whether that offering will deliver real value to your community. At the end of the day, if a service isn’t improving your patients’ wellbeing, it isn’t worth your time and effort to provide it.
If point-of-care testing does make sense in your situation, consider a holistic approach that includes the flu and strep as well. When you’re testing for COVID-19 during flu season, you’re likely to find that your patients are concerned about more than just coronavirus and additional testing may be needed.
Reassure your pharmacists and staff
The role of your pharmacists, techs and clerks during flu season can't be overstated, but neither can the risk they take going to work each day. Help them feel more comfortable about being in contact with patients and providing flu shots during COVID-19 by implementing a thorough screening process. Ask your customers about coronavirus-related symptoms and possible exposure. Make sure they know these questions are for their own safety so they're not vaccinated while they're already sick. This level of screening will ultimately help your team feel better about immunizations.
"The pharmacist needs to have the reassurance that the patient’s not only gone through normal immunization screening, but an extra screen to ensure they're not at high-risk of COVID-19," Steve said. "This extra step eases the fear to calm staff hesitancy in giving shots."
Weathering a pandemic during flu season is going to be stressful for everyone, but this is another opportunity for independent pharmacies to step up just like they at the onset of the pandemic. By being adaptable, creative and thoughtful with the services you provide heading into the colder months, you’re going to show your community new ways that you can care for them and, more importantly, how much you care about them.
Read part 1 of this series to learn how to communicate your new offerings to your patients >