Why pharmacy's importance is growing

joseph-tucci-thumb Dr Joseph Tucci
Email: j.tucci@latrobe.edu.au

It often surprises me that the perception of the pharmacist among some is still that of a person who stands behind a counter, looking grim, performing unseen and quite mysterious tasks that result in delivery of a labelled box of medicines.

In reality, the practice of pharmacy today is one of the most important in the delivery of health services, and pharmacists are the health professionals who have the most detailed knowledge of drugs and how they work.

A pharmacist’s duty is not simply preparing the drugs which are prescribed by a general practitioner or other health professional. It is to deliver optimal pharmaceutical care, by assessing the suitability of the medication for a particular patient, taking into account their medical history, as well as possible side effects and interactions with other drugs that are being used. Importantly, pharmaceutical care also includes engagement and communication with patients, so they are given a clear understanding of the medication, its purposes, effects and the dosage regime. Within the community, local pharmacists also undertake health promotions, such as providing education sessions on specific areas of health and disease prevention. Some pharmacy practices even specialise in, for example, asthma or diabetes care and provide specific assistance, advice and services.  

From conversations with a patient, a pharmacist must be able to identify and evaluate important health aspects which may need addressing.  One example from my own career as a pharmacist was identifying a patient’s high blood pressure to be exacerbated by the salt tablets she was chewing. Without engaging with her, I would have never noticed or subsequently consulted with her GP.

Pharmacists are often the first port of call for people to get advice on health in general, as well as specific clinical conditions. This is especially so in rural towns, where the health services may not match those in metropolitan areas.  In these towns, where pharmacy practices have been established for many years, the pharmacist is trusted by other members of the community to offer professional advice. A common example is a patient coming into the pharmacy with a weepy eye, wanting advice. It may turn out they have some particulate matter in their eye, from grinding or sanding on the weekend.  It’s the pharmacist’s job to identify that problem and refer them onto other health professionals, such as an optometrist.

Like many other health professions, pharmacy is changing and adapting to the latest methods of health delivery. Through consultations with other health professionals, such as GPs, counsellors, physiotherapists and optometrists, pharmacists are forming health care teams, whereby a patient’s health is viewed holistically, and medical problems are addressed from the perspective of the patient’s life history and environment.

One of the most dramatic changes in pharmacy in the last 20 years or so is the move away from a role in manufacturing the actual medications, to more of a clinical role. With this change, there has been a greater emphasis on the understanding of disease processes, and how these can be addressed with lifestyle changes and drug therapy. As an example of this, the role of consultant pharmacists has grown, where they are engaged to formally review a patient’s medication profile. In this capacity, the pharmacist highlights therapy which can be changed in order to optimise medication efficacy, as well as reduce the incidence of side effects.

The flexibility of the profession means that pharmacists can make important contributions in the hospital and community settings, and in a variety of environments, both metropolitan and rural. Given the incredibly diverse nature of the role, and the vast amount of continuing education involved, I believe the practice of pharmacy is very rewarding for whoever embarks upon it. It’s gratifying to see a patient come back into the pharmacy, and acknowledge you have made a difference to their health.

Pharmacists have long been providing health services in every region of Australia, and while they remain mostly outside the glare of the limelight, the profession remains one of the most respected in the community.