Pharmacists Are Front-line Educators of Patients During COVID-19 Pandemic

October 21, 2020
Alana Hippensteele, Editor

According to Amy Kallo, a PharmD student at Midwestern University, working at a pharmacy during the pandemic helped to solidify her understanding of the role of pharmacists as educators in their communities.

Since the start of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, Amy Kallo, a PharmD student at Midwestern University, worked as a pharmacy intern at a CVS in Chicago. According to Kallo, working at a pharmacy during the pandemic helped to solidify her understanding of the role of pharmacists as educators in their communities.

“We are definitely the front line to educate patients,” Kallo said.

Kallo explained that when she first entered the field, she knew that the role of the retail pharmacist was important, because they are the most accessible health care providers in communities where access may be more challenging.

Kallo said that for patients, the amount of time they would otherwise need to wait to speak with a physician about their health concerns makes pharmacists’ presence in communities a critical and unique access point within the health care system.

Yet, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kallo explained that her understanding of the role of the retail pharmacist became clearer than ever before.

“When the pandemic first hit, and doctors’ offices were closing down [and] ERs specifically became for COVID patients only, I realized the value of the retail pharmacy,” Kallo said. “[I am] able to sit and tell a patient face-to-face what I know and convey to them in layman’s terms what the situation really is.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Kallo explained that each patient would come in terrified and looking for answers.

“They would ask me ‘When is this going to end?’ That was always one of their first questions. And ‘How is it going to end?’ was another,” Kallo said.

She noted that having the education that she does allowed her to assimilate information from her mentors in the field and from the medical community at large in order to educate frightened customers with the facts that were available at the time.

“Having that perspective during the pandemic just made me realize the value and importance of having a pharmacist available at the drop of a hat,” Kallo said.

Kallo explained that she was also able to provide comfort to patients during the pandemic who were otherwise alone and unable to see their loved ones.

“Just being able to console somebody who couldn’t see their grandchildren or spend their daughter or son’s birthday together, but [they could] spend those 2 minutes in the pharmacy with me, gowned in [personal protective equipment], and I could empathize and provide them with a little solace. This was definitely a value of the pharmacy that I didn’t realize was as necessary as before,” Kallo said.

The importance of pharmacies during the COVID-19 pandemic was also amplified because many pharmacies did not shut down as the virus spread throughout the United States, Kallo explained.

“In fact, pharmacies were getting a lot busier,” Kallo said. “We were receiving a lot more patients, and we were receiving a lot more phone calls and questions because we were the first line of care access that they had.”

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, her classes at Midwestern University abruptly came to a halt, forcing her professors and classmates to stop what was planned for the semester all at once.

"When we were in person, we were all busy with school, work, family,” Kallo said. “In March, it was all brought to a halt. We had all these things planned a year, a month, or a week out, and everything was placed on pause.”

Kallo explained that this brought everyone together, professors and classmates alike, to collaborate and figure out what to do next.

“That was the big question: What do we do next?” Kallo said. “But thankfully, we answered that question together as a class. It definitely helped me to have my classmates on with me the entire time.”

She also noted that this had the unexpected effect of changing the dynamics of the classroom and allowed her to become closer to her mentor and faculty advisor, Susan Cornell, PharmD, CDE, FAADE, FAPhA, the associate director of experiential education at Midwestern University Chicago College of Pharmacy.

“I got a lot closer with Dr Cornell, who is amazing. I am so lucky to get to go to Midwestern because they have her. She is just truly a blessing,” Kallo said.

Additionally, during the pandemic, Kallo worked to collaborate with her district leader at CVS in Chicago to create drive-thru influenza (flu) shot clinics.

“This would invite more people who were afraid to step into buildings to still get access to a flu shot,” Kallo said.

She noted that this opportunity would hopefully propel her pharmacy career forward, as she was able to quickly gain invaluable experience supporting these drive-thru clinics during her internship at CVS.

During this time, Kallo was also working at Northwestern Medicine as a student pharmacy technician. She explained that at the beginning of the pandemic, some of her colleagues were worried about the potential for COVID-19 exposure when working with patients, and some were calling out from work out of concern for the health challenges that working with patients posed for themselves and their families.

Kallo explained that since she was a student who did not have health concerns outside of the risks of COVID-19 exposure, she continued to show up to work in spite of her own personal fears.

“When I continuously showed up for my shifts and proved that ‘I am a health care worker, and I am here to help,’ it definitely showed something to my pharmacy manager about my bravery and willingness to be there,” Kallo said. “Building that relationship with my pharmacy manager definitely would help me out if I were to pursue a residency with Northwestern Medicine.”

Kallo noted that despite her bravery and willingness to be there, she was still afraid in the face of the challenge before her.

“It was terrifying,” Kallo said. “When it was getting really bad in April, I was waking up and the first thing I would do was read the news: how many cases, how many deaths. I would then drive to the hospital and sit there and think, ‘If I were to be here and contract the virus, how am I going to protect my family or protect myself?’”

Kallo explained that she didn’t feel like these fears were helpful in the face of the challenge her patients would face if she decided to not be present for them.

“I knew at the end of the day that if I wasn’t there, it would be 10 times worse for the patients,” Kallo said. “If I wasn’t able to be there, then the process for certain medications could get delayed and the patients wouldn’t receive it, and it would be a whole mess.”

Kallo said that by thinking about the challenges patients would face in her absence, she was able to keep going.

“I had to continuously think that through. That was my motivation, that was the [reason for] my dedication,” Kallo said. “I have to get up, and I have to go. Not for me, but for them. That’s definitely the only thing that carried me through.”