Experts discuss the growing role of pharmacy technicians during COVID-19

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Q: How has the role of the pharmacy technician changed during COVID-19? And how does the role continue to grow after the pandemic?

Joao Jose Joaquim: If you allow me to add some information to the previous question. At EAPT, European Association [of Pharmacy Technicians], we have education comparison surveys, community roles and hospital roles, you can find them on surveys at EAPT.info We are updating, and I think Samantha said that things change. When we do the first survey, we can compare with the new survey, and we can see that things are changing tasks, the role is more or less the same, but the tasks are moving forward because things are changing about the pandemic.

At first it was, I think all over the world, very complicated. The first month of the pandemic has been very busy, the workload is increasing a lot, a lot of patients, a lot of questions, a lot of thoughts. People who see the news, and sometimes they don’t have the skills to understand it all. They go to the pharmacy to ask for medicine, because they hear it on television, reading the newspapers or on Facebook. So it was very confusing, and it’s very difficult for professionals.

After that we shut down the country, we have a lockdown and things are more stable. We prepare pharmacies to protect professionals and protect patients. In Portugal, we have the possibility of buying medicines, via the Internet, but directly from a pharmacy. If you are at home and have a prescription, you can ask if you can deliver the drugs to a pharmacy. It is therefore also possible that the patients do not go to the pharmacies, but that the pharmacy goes to the patients’ homes to deliver the medicines. Now, of course, things are completely different, but it was very, very difficult in the beginning.

Let me tell you something. Here in Portugal, we heard a lot of people at the start of the pandemic saying that we weren’t prepared for this, and I don’t agree. Because I think we have the knowledge, we have the skills, we have the skills, and that’s what makes the difference between a greater tragedy, I think we have the skills and we are preparing. We are not aware of this because this has never happened, this everywhere in the world. I think we have everything we need to fix the problem, and I think that was a good answer at least here. I don’t know worldwide, but I think most countries have the right professionals with the right skills and competencies to deal with this big problem. We share a lot [of] information between the authorities, the countries, even in our association, we talk about it with our customers from the different countries, what happened in each country. The season was therefore also very successful, except for the deaths due to the pandemic.

Samantha Quai: I think I would build on what you say about vaccines and the skills we already have. We were in high demand when COVID hit and you will have seen in the UK we got loads of vaccines back at the start then people realize that actually to make them up because initially it wasn’t ready to administer the dose, to complete them they needed training to be able to draw safely. Who did they come to? Pharmacy technicians, who do it in a septic dispensation, or prep as you might call it in your country.

The pharmacy technician stepped in to show that people are providing the training for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, so they can make the vaccine in the first place. Then in other sectors in community pharmacy, in primary care, and across the country, they worked in vaccination centers, again, preparing these also means administering them. Legislation changed in the UK to allow for there to be an assessment of patients and pharmacy technicians and for others to then administer the COVID vaccine, which had been a huge change.

I think the other thing in terms of role has increased during the pandemic, there’s a lot of different ways that’s happened, but in the hospital setting we had, obviously, a lot more people who are a lot more sick and ended up overwhelming our intensive care unit. We had redeployed our pharmacy technicians to intensive care, and they were also helping to prepare those who were ready to administer the doses for our care teams. They’ve just had amazing feedback from the team because the care teams have been able to go and support their patients in different ways in a kind of hands-on care, rather than having to focus on how to prepare for the different doses they needed for their patient in terms of medication. We are drug experts and we are able to move forward in this perspective.

Also in England I don’t know if you’ve heard we had field hospitals called Nightingale hospitals, they almost like overflow. Pharmacy technicians at the height of the pandemic played a key role in managing them safely in terms of supply, face storage and drug supply, in a fast-paced and fairly unfamiliar environment. We have undertaken this task and I think we have accomplished it. I think those are just some of the ways roles have developed during the pandemic from an acute perspective.

I think the second part of your question was how will that change after the pandemic? I suppose. I think by showing what pharmacy technicians can do, there has certainly been more openness to considering pharmacy technicians for roles that would have traditionally been filled by other healthcare professionals. Moreover, patients and the public are much more aware than I think of the pharmacy technician before it is, what is it? Are they pharmacists? No, we are pharmacy technicians. So now people know that because people were coming in for their lateral flow test, coming in for their shots, coming in to pick up supported medications from community pharmacies that stayed open throughout the pandemic, from the start. We are all sort of soldiers in providing that health care in person when other places weren’t necessarily able to do that. I think the role will continue to evolve organically across all centers, and we have pharmacy technicians working in such a variety of roles that it will now be viewed more openly than perhaps it was before the pandemic.

Tiffany Kofroth: Here in the United States, it hit us pretty hard. I will say that working in an institution or hospital system, there was no closing of doors that we were in an inpatient hospital. Our pharmacy technicians still had to come to work and provide this care to our incoming patients. Of course, we had limited outpatient services, but these patients still had to receive their chemotherapy treatments and their pre-medications, and all the other things that went with their care treatment. Technicians have evolved and will always evolve. There is specialized certification for technicians who immunize patients. This is a national certification that was achieved around the time COVID started.

[Pharmacy Technician Certification Board] had seen that there was an increased prospect for this, so they deployed this very quickly, gave the technicians the training they needed, and provided specialized training for this. We have many technicians across the country administering the COVID vaccine to patients at these retail facilities in these hospitals. Where it is allowed, of course, it is not up to each institution to do it, but there are certain rural areas or several areas in the countryside, not so much in the city, where the technicians have really shone in this perspective .

In terms of roles within my institution, we have actually changed a lot of our roles from a non-clinical role to working remotely. Many of our techs work remotely, especially in a data analyst type situation where they’re really in front of a computer screen most of the day; there is no interaction with patients. These roles have become much more popular. We also have hybrid roles. The technician may be at home on certain days; they may be in the office. This is definitely a change in our practice.

Then we too, before the pandemic, always had systems in place and through apps on our phone to contact a doctor and get the medications we need and that has really, really grown since the pandemic. We have online apps and things that are covered by our insurance, where we talk with the doctor through our phone, they deliver the prescription to the pharmacy, and then the pharmacy can like “they can either pick it up at a contactless drive-thru or this order can be sent home.

All of these things have really helped throughout the pandemic, to not only ensure that pharmacy staff are compliant and really monitoring their personal health, but also to protect the patient, especially if they are contagious. So those are some of the roles that have happened during the pandemic, and I think that’s going to continue to change. The profession is one of those things where we will always change roles. There will always be something new happening, and we will learn as much as we can. We’ll see where the pharmacy technicians fit in, and then we’ll continue to expand the roles we take on. It’s about working at the top of your license, and we really back it up in the US to make sure our techs can do it.

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