Michael, 32, is a pharmacist living and working in London. This interview was recorded via Zoom in the fourth week of lockdown and has been edited for clarity and concision.
I qualified in 2011 and have been a pharmacist since. I've worked in community and hospital pharmacies, and now I'm a manager and independent prescriber. There's much more pressure on GPs and on pharmacists right now with the pandemic, as there is no end to the number of people needing help. So we’re doing more of the tasks that a GP would have done in the past.
My specialty is in substance misuse. There's a massive stigma attached to people who have problems with addiction. There are many issues that affect why someone goes down that route — misuse of medication, reactions to traumatic events — and these people are often left behind. I find this work rewarding because you can really see the help that people get from it.
The job has become much more complex since I started. Technology has given people a lot more avenues by which to interact with healthcare professionals, and the demand is huge. There's an unending number of platforms that you need to be able to use, and new ones keep coming out.
When technology evolves so fast, people get left behind. Patients often want things to stay as they are. I think that's not down so much to the difficulty of technology as the investment of explaining things to people at the beginning. For the NHS, catching up to decades old technology is still the challenge. There need to be deadlines for some of these outdated ways — I believe the NHS deadline for finally stopping the use of fax machines is the end of this year. If your surgery is still using fax machines that alone speaks volumes.
The positives outweigh the negatives though — across the board things have gotten better. You have so much more time for patients by not having to do the more arduous technical tasks. It's easier than ever to request prescriptions, fill prescriptions, book vaccinations and let people know important information. There's less risk of making a mistake.
I think the pandemic will have long-lasting effects, and one of those effects is that there are now so many ways to engage with your pharmacy and your doctor, online, via text, apps. That was coming anyway but the stress on the system has accelerated it. We’re seeing the highest level of change I’ve seen since I started. With doctors being shut during lockdown, a lot of patients are being referred to pharmacists, which hugely added to our workload. There’s been a rush to innovate, accommodate and find new ways of working more efficiently. We will be studying the outcomes closely after lockdown is over.
What I think we’re seeing is that people can adapt very quickly to new technologies when they have to — when they’re motivated. In this case crisis is a motivator. I’ve been on a Zoom call with people who would never have dreamed of using Zoom in their life. Once you’ve done something once, you’ll be a lot more likely to do it again. People are endlessly able to adapt to new technology — it’s the will to adapt that’s missing. I think we’re missing a trick with this.
This will also drive a lot of conversations about how we interact generally. Now that people have had a taste of working at home, will they travel into work? You can apply the same to healthcare — will people now think that they don’t need to see a GP in person for some things? Will support groups go online? How can we make sure that people who struggle with access don’t get lost in this change? The crisis has made clear the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, and those who were ‘have nots’ when this happened are going to stay that way. How can we make sure they get the support they need?
I think we have to plan how to integrate with the technology, make sure it helps everyone, and we have to look at people who will be made redundant. We can focus on positives and what we can do.
We can use the COVID-19 situation to advance some things that will make life easier for everyone, especially, for example, remote tools for elderly and vulnerable patients who might be given a better quality of life. The legacy will be what we make it.
In medicine right now there is diagnostic software that is better than humans at reading scans, MRIs and so on. When it comes to aiding healthcare workers, everyone’s happy to accept that help. But in terms of transformation — what exactly are we looking at? Are we looking at artificial intelligence (AI) completely replacing jobs? Are we looking at AI with a human component? Some people would find it quite unnerving to have an AI technology make all the decisions about their health.
Professional stagnation is the biggest danger in any profession now. I trained as an independent prescriber and am continuing my education to ensure I keep learning. Anything people can do to upskill or specialise is going to be to their benefit.