Pharmacists Are Frontline Educators of Patients During COVID-19 Pandemic

Alana Hippensteele, Editor

Pharmacy Careers, Spring 2021, Volume 15, Issue 1

Seeing the vital role of pharmacists during the pandemic has solidified many students' desire to join the profession.

Since the start of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, Amy Kallo, a PharmD student at Midwestern University College of Pharmacy (MUCP) in Downers Grove, Illinois, has been a pharmacy intern. According to Kallo, working at a CVS pharmacy in Chicago, Illinois during the pandemic solidified her understanding of pharmacists' roles as educators in their communities.

"We are definitely the front line to educate patients," Kallo said in an interview with Pharmacy Times. Kallo explained that when she entered the field, she knew retail pharmacists had an important role. They are the most easily reachable health care providers in communities where access may be more challenging.

Kallo said that for patients, the amount of time they would otherwise wait to speak with a physician about health concerns makes pharmacists' presence in communities a critical, unique access point within the health care system. Yet, during the pandemic, Kallo said her understanding of the retail pharmacist's role became clearer.

"When the pandemic first hit, and doctors' offices were closing [and emergency departments] specifically became for COVID-19 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, 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 she does allowed her to assimilate information from her mentors in the field and from the medical community at large to educate frightened patients with the facts 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 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's 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 a value of the pharmacy that I didn't realize was as necessary as before," Kallo said.

The importance of pharmacies during the pandemic was also amplified because many stores did not shut down as the virus spread throughout the United States, Kallo explained. "In fact, pharmacies were getting a lot busier," 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, to figure out how to proceed. "That was the big question: 'What do we do next?'" Kallo said. "But thankfully, we answered that question together as a class. It helped me to have my classmates on with me the entire time."

She also noted that this had the unexpected effect of changing classroom dynamics, allowing her to become closer to her mentor and faculty adviser, Susan Cornell, PharmD, CDE, FAADE, FAPhA, associate director of experiential education at MUCCP. "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-through influenza 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, because she was able to quickly gain invaluable experience supporting these drive-through 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 colleagues were worried about the potential for COVID-19 exposure when working with patients, and some were calling out from work over concern for themselves and their families.

Kallo explained that because she was a student who did not have health concerns outside of the risks of COVID-19 exposure, she continued going to work despite her 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 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 said she didn't feel these fears were helpful in view 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 thinking about the challenges patients would face in her absence kept her 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 the only thing that carried me through."

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