Pharmacists are a "largely untapped resource" during a flu outbreak and could be better utilised, according to a new paper by the Deeble Institute for Health Policy Research.
Written by Queensland University of Technology scholar Libby McCourt, the paper – Improving Pharmacist Involvement in Pandemic Influenza Planning and Response in Australia – looks at how pharmacist skills are underused during pandemics.
"Despite being the third most common health professional in Australia after doctors and nurses, pharmacist skills are not well used or incorporated into pandemic planning," McCourt said.
"As we saw with last winter’s record flu outbreak and the ‘swine flu’ (H1N1) outbreak in 2009, we are dealing with something that is not uncommon, and has potentially catastrophic effects, not only on personal health but on productivity and the economy.
"Being prepared, planning and making sure those plans align with health workforce activities and skills are essential to reducing the impacts of a flu outbreak.
"At the moment there is a national plan for responding to pandemic influenza that outlines agreed arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. But it’s largely up to the individual states and territories to decide the best way to plan and respond within their own jurisdictions."
McCourt said the plans were available to the public (with the exception of ACT) but fail to specify the role of pharmacists "in a consistent or comprehensive way".
"The gaps vary by state and territory," McCourt said. "Similarly, the role of pharmacist organisations, especially in planning responses and in communication within the profession in each state and territory, are not clearly or consistently specified."
She said pharmacists can contribute to limiting an outbreak in several ways, including vaccinations without prescription, issuing absence from work certificates, antiviral distribution, surveillance activities, and emergency medication supply.
"Based on the results of research for this paper, national and state responses to pandemics could be improved by clearly spelling out pharmacist roles to be consistent across all pandemic plans, involving pharmacy professional organisations in planning and communication with Departments of Health, and setting up pandemic response networks within the profession and between the profession and organisations such as Local Health Districts and Primary Health Networks.
"There is even scope to mobilise pharmacy students to contribute to the response during an outbreak if the healthcare workforce is at its limits – not for clinical duties, but duties such as calling pharmacies to check antiviral stock levels, calling patients for follow-up, assisting patients with paperwork, and so on. This has been tried successfully in the USA."
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