NHS

It's time to reclaim holism

Holistic. It's one of those words that's sure to set any skeptic’s teeth on edge. It's basically a codename for woo, bandied about by supporters and pushers of all sorts of magic, unicorn tears, and snake oil.

But should it be? Is it time for the medical profession to reclaim the label holistic as its own, and start shouting from the rooftops about how we are holistic practitioners? I think it is, and here’s why.

holistic

həʊˈlɪstɪk,hɒ-/

adjective

Philosophy

adjective: holistic

characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

Medicine

characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.

There is a general perception, gleefully pushed by proponents of alternative healthcare,  that somehow conventional healthcare and holism are at odds with each other. The image of an uncaring, white-coated medical professionals hell-bent on simply treating that one particular symptom, with no regard for the fact that a patient is attached to that symptom seems pervasive.

We don’t help ourselves, I suppose. With a limited time on GP appointments, for example, its easy to feel like you’re being rushed through the system. Some surgeries ask that you book one appointment per ailment. Our health care professionals tend to specialise in one particular type of illness, and you can start to get the impression that they only care about that particular bit of your life, despite the fact that it’s very often all interconnected. You can feel passed from pillar to post, one day an appointment with a diabetes nurse, the next day an appointment with someone else for your arthritis, and two days later an appointment with a mental health specialist. So I do understand that it can seem like, as healthcare professional, we only care about your symptoms. 

But, even at the most basic level, it is impossible and really quite dangerous  to practice healthcare without looking at the patient as a whole. We’re all trained to do it, and its become so second nature to us that we have all sort of forgotten to be proud of it. As a result, we've lost control of the word holistic and we’re allowing unscrupulous charlatans to creep in to the public’s consciousness on the back of it. Of course, there are improvements to be made, but I think on the whole we do bloody well in the NHS, given the knowledge, funding and time constraints we’re lumbered with.

Now, in my day job as a medicines information pharmacist, I actually have no direct contact with patients. But I still, fundamentally, operate as a holistic practitioner. Here’s a basic example of what I mean:

GP: “Ah, hi there, I’m just wondering if there are any interactions between Champix and CellCept?”

In this sort of seemingly simple interaction enquiry, it is imperative that I look at the patient as a whole, rather than simply as two drugs out there on their own. 

  • Champix®▼(varenicline) is a drug used to help patients stop smoking
  • CellCept® (mycophenolate mofetil) is an immunosuppressive drug used to stop organ rejection in transplant patients. 

If I were to look at interactions of these two drugs,  I wouldn't find any,So fine, we’re good to go, right? I mean, I’ve answered the question, done my job, and all is well, yes? 

No, not at all. If I’m going to safely answer this question, I need to look at the patient as a whole. I need to acknowledge that they’re not simply a smoking machine that needs to stop but they’re a living, breathing complicated human.  I need to look at the patient holistically, not just as some isolated drugs.

So our patient is in his mid-forties, using the mycophenolate mofetil because he has previously had a heart transplant. He has a history of depression (understandable really, given how ill he has been in the past), and takes a couple of other medicines too (no major interactions on checking). He wants to stop smoking, which is great, a really positive step for him, but he’s failed a few attempts already whilst using nicotine replacement therapies. He's found these failed attempts frustrating in the past,which has then triggered bouts of depression. His liver and kidneys are working just fine.

So, looking at the patient as a whole, I need to think about how using varenicline will impact him as a person. Some of my thoughts go thus:

  • Stopping smoking itself might affect some drugs, as there are chemicals in cigarette smoke which can affect the enzymes that metabolise some drugs. Is this the case with any of these drugs?

  • Quitting smoking itself can be a trigger for depression or suicidal ideation. 

  • There is also an association between varenicline and changes in behaviour and thinking, including depression and suicidal ideation. Given this patient’s history, this will need to be discussed with him and he’ll need to be monitored carefully.

  • Certain cardiovascular events were reported more frequently with varenicline than placebo in trials: we need to bear that in mind and monitor him for any adverse reactions, especially given his heart transplant

  • Not succeeding in giving up smoking has made him depressed in the past. Continuing to smoke increases his cardiovascular risks. A good old risk vs benefit decision needs to be made.

So I discuss all this with the Dr, and her response is:

“Ah that's great. Yep, I knew about the depression stuff but to be honest I hadn't really thought about the cardiovascular risks. I'll discuss it all with him, and I think we'll go ahead and prescribe it but I'll make sure to keep him closely monitored”

By looking at the patient holistically, his Dr and I have made sure that he will know to look out for any cardiac effects and to report it as soon as possible if he does experience any side effects. We can make sure that he's also prepared for the fact that his mood might change, and knows to report any of that too. He’s willing to take these risks for the sake of stopping smoking, so we’re helping him to take a really positive step in his life, aimed with all the information he needs to do it safely.

That’s just a small example of how I practice holistic medicine in my daily life. All over the NHS, at every level, other healthcare professionals are doing the same thing in their practice. We don’t declare ourselves to be holistic, because its such second nature that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. Maybe its time to start reminding people-and ourselves- that conventional medicine does, fundamentally, mean holistic medicine. 

Hxxx

 

The importance of a fluffy pen

Many years ago, in my pre-reg year, I was pulled into an office by my tutor and told that I needed to sober up. She didn't mean that in an alcohol sense, but instead that I needed to start being more serious, dour, and less quirky. She told me that my personality, as it was, wasn't right to be a professional.

At the time, I believed her. She told me that I would never make a good pharmacist if I carried on the way I was. I was terrified, as all I wanted to do with my life was to be a pharmacist. If I couldn't be a good one, then I would really need to change my personality.

All of this started because I had a Christmas pen. It played tinny music for an alarmingly long time when pressed, and it became a bit of a joke in the dispensary to sneak up behind me when I was working and set it off, making everyone dissolve into giggles. A dispensing assistant, who was wearing a Christmas tie, was also told off, and strongly advised to not wear it again.

But nowadays, I disagree heartily that you have to be serious to be professional. I think a little bit of well-placed silliness and a lot of humour can add to our professionalism.

We need to be approachable to patients. And what makes a person more approachable than a little bit of personality? Nothing, except perhaps a novelty pen. On a couple of occasions, women who have come to see me about the emergency hormonal contraception pill, and who have been very nervous, have ended up giggling at a ridiculously fluffy pink flamingo pen I used to have. It broke the ice, and they could see that I was a person just like them, and I wasn't going to sit there all business-suited and high and mighty at the other side of the table and judge them. They felt a lot more comfortable because of that pen, and I think I was able to help them a lot more as a result.

At the moment, I have a Special Pen in my desk drawer. It is comedically large, pink, and slightly phallic, with some floppy rubber spikes on the end. I like to take it out of my desk drawer and offer it up, straight-faced, when people ask to borrow a pen. 

my special comedy pen, with a banana for scale

my special comedy pen, with a banana for scale

We health care professionals deal with a lot of dark stuff on a daily basis: sickness, death, disability, anger, frustration etc. We need to balance that darkness out with something lighter. Whether its doing something daft in the dispensary to make your staff laugh for a few seconds when times are stressful, or donning a fox mask and writing silly things on the internet, it all counts. 

As long as we put the patient first, we treat others with respect, and we work within our limits, true professionalism doesn't have to mean that we all walk about with serious faces.


Hxxx  

Pharmacies, pharmacies, everywhere.

"Phew, I tell you what, I can't move for pharmacies these days. They're everywhere I turn, and I can't walk down a street these days without tripping over multiple green crosses. Everywhere you go its pharmacy here, pharmacy there, pharmacies everywhere"- No-one, ever.

And yet, apparently there are too many of the blighters, according to some pharmacy leaders. About 3,000 too many, give or take. Funnily enough, I beg to differ. And here's why.

I have worked in two newly-opened pharmacies in my career. In each, I was inundated with customers wandering in and telling me how lucky they were to have a pharmacy in their area. In one, the residents of the local area had campaigned for years to get their own pharmacy. Within months, the pharmacy was busy and the delivery service was thriving- and this was in a very small pit village.

We weren't, however, busy enough to justify a second pharmacist. This meant that I-despite good, efficient staff- would have to work many a late night-for no extra pay or lieu time- just to keep my head above water. The pharmacy closed at 5.30pm. I was regularly there until 10.30pm on a Thursday night, dispensing and checking prescriptions to make sure we were clear for Friday morning so that we could get all the prescriptions done and delivered in time for the weekend. This was just to keep on top of the day to day dispensing and didn't take into account any of the routine business things I had to do, like writing SOPs, Business continuity plans, finances, etc etc etc as a pharmacy manager. The pharmacy opened at 9am. I would turn up at 7:30am (again, unpaid) to get the till float done, prescriptions counted etc before we opened.

Its not that my time management or organisation was bad. It was just the sheer volume of work that needed to be done. I got away lightly- one of my fellow pharmacists in a different branch was known to be still at work at 2am at least once a week, just to keep afloat.

This was a few years ago now, but I locum fairly regularly and I still see busy pharmacies, with staff working flat out to get their work done as efficiently as possible. Not that much seems to have changed. What I don't see is empty, quiet overstaffed pharmacies filled with bored staff who have nothing  to do.

One day, the managing director for the company came round, and had a go at me because I hadn't been doing enough Medicines Use Reviews (MURs). Now, I was initially enthusiastic and excited about MURs. I couldn't wait to sit down with patients and get my teeth into providing a good quality service.

But I just couldn't do it. I didn't have time to do as much training, preparation, and CPD as I wanted to, and as a result I was nervous of doing MURs. What didn't help was the fact that, throughout each one, a large part of my brain was taken up with worries about how many prescriptions were piling up in the dispensary, when I wanted to give the patient my full attention. Each 15-20 min slot I spent in the consultation room with a patient meant I was behind with prescriptions- and because most of mine were deliveries, this had a huge knock on effect on the delivery drivers, and ultimately, the patients, who would then ring up in a panic wondering why their medicines hadn't been delivered by the usual time, putting us even further behind schedule. Thus began a vicious circle, worsened by my own constant feeling that I was so thinly stretched I just wasn't able to do enough justice to every aspect of my work. I'm by no means a perfectionist, but I like to do things well, and the fact that I just didn't have the resources to do so constantly played on my mind.

I ended up frustrated at my own inadequacies and inability to get on top of the situation, stressed to breaking point, and incredibly disheartened. I'd even go so far as to admit that resentment started creeping in too. I know I'm not alone here, and suspect that the majority of community pharmacists have felt this way. 

MURs are just one example of a service of course. In the year and a bit I worked at that pharmacy, we started doing MURs, morning after pill, over 50 men's health checks, diabetes screening, a minor ailments scheme, smoking cessation schemes, and a weight management scheme, amongst others. I was desperately swimming against a tidal wave of more and more jobs to do in the same amount of time.

Each time I read a pharmacy magazine like Chemist + Druggist, there seems to be yet another call from yet another pharmacy body or the other for pharmacists to be involved in delivery of yet another service. And my heart sinks, because I wonder just how on earth this is supposed to fit in with all of the other jobs that need doing.

Now, I'll admit that I haven't read the Now or Never report from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society commission (on account of being a cash-strapped non-member pleb). Nor have I kept up to date with the response to it on social media, blogs etc (on account of a fairly severe bout of anxiety-induced apathy over the last few days). With that in mind, though it still seems to me that the following metaphorical conversation is going on:

Pharmacy leaders: "And, and, and, you would be really good at delivering all these new services, so you should start doing that."

Pharmacist (from underneath a large pile of prescriptions that need checking, in between phone calls, and being called to the counter to speak to patients): "Yeah, I probably would be good at that. And I would love to do it, if only I had time."

Pharmacy leaders: "Good, well that's settled then. We'll pay you less for dispensing, but because you'll be doing all these services that will definitely be okay because you'll make up the money elsewhere."

Pharmacist (desperately attempting to gulp from a cold cup of tea to avoid dehydration): "Erm, right. Sorry, I need to go and talk to a patient now hold on... right, sorry, I'm back, what were you saying again? oh hang on, that's the phone ringing, I'll just have to get that..."

Pharmacy leaders: "We're so pleased you're co-operating. Oh, and by the way, we've decided there's too many pharmacies, so we're going to close all the ones near you, so you'll be getting more prescriptions to do, and more customers."

Pharmacist: "hang on, whaa- yes Mrs Brown, your prescription will only be a couple more minutes"

Pharmacy leaders: "Great! so to summarise, that's more prescriptions, more customers, more services, less pay. See you later!" (flounces off)

Pharmacist: "What in the hell just happened?... No no, Mr Smith, its okay, I don't need to see your haemorrhoids again, thank you"

Strategic decisions and the bigger picture are all very well, but at the end of the day they are just words if the people at the front line aren't able to deliver the vision because they are already overloaded. To me, it feels like new ideas, new visions and new services are bandied about by the top level folk, but what they neglect to do is look at the minutiae and check how the "little people", the folk on the ground are doing and what they think about any changes.

The realities of life on the shop floor are, in my mind, not conducive to delivering the sorts of services that the profession is calling for, unless there is a huge overhaul in how pharmacies are staffed, funded, and managed. And given that, in these austere and pressured times, everything possible is being done to reduce costs, pare down staffing, and maximise profits, I just cannot see the sort of situation in which we can do all of these things to the best of our abilities well panning out in real life. Yes, great changes in the direction of the profession need to come from the top, but they also need to come from the pharmacists behind the counter in the little pharmacy in the tiny pit village too.

The only way that I would have been able to deliver MURs in my pharmacy to the standard and quality that I so desperately wanted to acheive would have been to have had a second pharmacist present. And the only way a second pharmacist would have been present was if they had been paid. And the only way the company would have paid for a second pharmacist would have been if they were absolutely, just short of gunpoint, forced to.

I'd like to suggest that before the profession starts excitedly waving its hands and shouting "ME ME ME!!" to every available service going, we take a step back and decide whether or not we can actually deliver it, given everything else we also have to do. That enthusiasm is great, but if we can't follow it up with actions, we will end up an all-talk and no substance sort of profession.

So, in summary: are there too many pharmacies? No, although there might be the odd street or village which has more than its fair share. To be honest its a moot point. What's a more important question is: "what can we do to support pharmacists and improve the quality of services in the pharmacies we've got?"

H xxx 

 

Stick a label on this...

Since before I began my career in pharmacy, there has been a drive to get pharmacists "out of the dispensary", in a bid to better utilise their medicines expertise with patients. This sounds great- we have unique clinical knowledge and skills that we have always wanted to use more to make sure medicines are used effectively, safely and efficiently.

For a patient to use a medicine effectively, they need to actually have it in their possession. There is no getting away from the fact that dispensing prescriptions remains a large part of the community pharmacy business model (leaving aside concerns about the contract and reimbursement etc for now). However, dispensing remains the frumpy friend of the drop dead gorgeous, charismatic clinical side of pharmacy. It seems that these days it is seen as repetitive drudgery: the smartie counting and label sticking that we hear so much about. It is, in short, a waste of pharmacists' time, and is something the profession as a whole seems to unquestioningly want to leave behind.

I believe, however, that it is pharmacy's unique selling point. Its only through dispensing that a prescriber's directions are translated into reality. We can prescribe and advise on the most efficient use of medicines imaginable, but if the patient doesn't physically have the right medicines and know how to use them, all of that is pointless.

Yes, there are ways to reduce the pharmacist's input in the dispensing process. There are robots, accredited checking technicians etc. But a prescription still needs to be clinically checked- and that requires the unique skills, knowledge, and abilities that only pharmacists have.

But lets say we step away from dispensing and move in a purely clinical direction. We sit in a room and do reviews of patient's medicines, answer queries, prescribe medicines, monitor and screen patients. Does this sound familiar to you? It sounds to me like the sort of thing a GP does. So, why do pharmacists exist? What do they add to the healthcare picture? Doubtless such pharmacists would be useful, but the profession would become more nebulous, the edges of our role more diluted and less defined.

In my eyes it is our practicality, our ability to supply essential medicines in a safe and effective way to patients that defines us as a separate profession. That, to me, doesn't have to just mean sticking labels on boxes, and doesn't mean that the profession has to be at a standstill. I just think that we need to stop putting ourselves down and accept and be proud of our role in supply. For years we have been declaring ourselves as able to provide new and more clinical services- and we can. But we need to make sure that we define and build on our niche to give us the solid foundations we need to start branching out.

We pharmacists are an interface. Our role is as go-between, and a bloody important role it is. We are go-between a patient and their GP or their consultant, or whoever. Or, we are a go-between the patient and complex medicines information- we can, crucially, convert difficult to understand evidence into patient friendly terms. We can explain what they read in the paper or on the internet, what the directions of a reducing dose are, help them to navigate through the overwhelming choice of medicines over the counter. We are a go-between the drug manufacturing plants and the patient's bathroom cabinet. And the thing that underpins this role is our accessibility. And the reason we are so accessible is because- wait for it- we dispense prescriptions.

If you ask me (not that anyone will), we need to stop thinking of dispensing as the poor relation and see it for just how useful it is.

Hxxx


 

CBT: The first session

So last Friday I began a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions, to help me deal with the social anxiety that I talked about in a previous blog post. 

I don't really expect to learn anything new from the course, to be honest. I'm pretty good at accepting, rationalising and challenging myself to face my fears, but what I'm finding more and more lately is that I reach breaking point more easily. I've always been able to keep the anxiety in check and have always just thought that I am shy, but various things- the bout of psoriasis I had, being single again, stuff happening with my friends etc has meant that I've been much less able to control it of late. So much of my brain is taken up by being anxious that there is little left over for anything else. My organization skills, which were poor at best anyway, are completely shot, and even the most basic problems at work leave me feeling totally overwhelmed. 

My friends are my world, and its hard for me to describe how much I love them and how much I love spending time with them. Since my divorce, when they rallied round and were totally amazing, I have made sure that they are the centre of everything I do. But this thing is getting in the way of that, and its making me miserable as a consequence. 

The best way I can think to describe it is like an energy bar in a computer game, but instead of life force, mine is a social bar. It gradually decreases, then eventually I run out and require recharging. In more stressful situations (like going to parties or meetings where I know no-one, or-horror of all horrors- dating, for example) it runs out a lot quicker than if I am spending time with by best friends. The recharging usually involves lying on my sofa watching old episodes of Dexter and not talking to anyone, although lately I've noticed a much more scary emptiness creeping in, and I can find myself lying on my bed staring at the ceiling with no thoughts or feelings or emotions at all. These hours are terrifying and are something that has never really happened to me before. 

So, having seen my GP, I got referred onto this group CBT course. The irony of being on a group course for social anxiety has not escaped me, and of course I found myself worrying about all aspects of the course. How will I get the time off work? Will I find the place? (this sort of anxiety stems from a fear of looking stupid if I don't know where I'm going) Will I have to make awkward small talk with the other people on the course? Will they think that my reasons for going are stupid? What if I have to speak about my emotions to them? etc etc etc. One of my biggest worries is whether I was bad enough to justify being on the course. The fact that I have spent several days if not weeks worrying about whether I am anxious enough to justify it has also tickled my sense of irony.

Anyway, I managed to find the place, and staggered in red-faced, dry mouthed, sweaty and with my heart beating (irregularly) out of my chest. The other folk in the waiting room looked serene and at home. The course started late due to technical problems, which rather than giving me time to calm down made me even worse.

Once I was in there, I felt somewhat better. The initial session is all about the causes and symptoms of anxiety and how it can manifest in different people, so we didn't really cover any CBT techniques. I was very pleased to hear the trainers talking about the evidence base for CBT, and they explained the pros and cons and process of what we would be doing over the next few weeks. I was starting to feel quite settled. It was nothing I didn't know already, of course, but its always good to know that there are other people suffering from the same thing as you.

Then came the two slides on medication. The slides just covered some really general points which I agreed with, but one of the women there talked about how she didn't want to try any medication as she was so worried about side effects. The trainers said they knew very little about specific medicines, and she should speak to her GP or pharmacist. Well, I tried to keep my mouth shut, I really did, but I couldn't help myself. I thought about just trying to make out like I was someone who knew a bit about medicines, but I could tell that this woman was really worried. She was wanting to try an antidepressant, and thought it could benefit her in the short term, but she was really concerned that they could amplify her anxiety permanently. I wanted to help and reassure her, and before I knew it, I could hear myself saying "I'm a pharmacist..." I explained a bit about how the drugs work, what sort of side effects could happen, and what the sort of terms used to describe how common a side effect is actually mean. She, the other attendees, and the trainers all listened attentively and said how great it was to have it all explained in context rather than to just look at a really long list of scary words on a patient information leaflet.

I left feeling happy that I had shared some of my expertise, but sort of worried about the rest of the course. I fully expect next week to walk in and be asked various different questions about the medicines people are taking. You get used to this happening when you tell people that you're a pharmacist. The problem comes from the fact that now I feel like I need to be "on", and in professional mode, when what I actually sort of want is a place that I can switch off my forcefield and fall apart, so I can put myself back together in a more rational, calmer way.

Hxxx  

To self-monitor blood glucose, or not?

Today's news greets us with a story about "rationing" of diabetes glucose test strips. Diabetes UK, in a survey of about 2,200 people, found that 39% of people with diabetes have had their prescriptions refused or restricted. Meanwhile, politicians are wading in stating that restrictions are unacceptable. 

Now, this sounds bad. But when you start applying some skeptical principles to this area, it all becomes slightly less clear. Here are some brief points to consider about self monitoring of blood glucose (SMBG) to put today's news into context:
 

Test strips are expensive. 

Spending on test strips in the UK is pretty high, and has been rising year on year since 2008. In 2010/2011, a whopping £158.4 million was spent on testing in England alone. These things are expensive, and a lot of them are being prescribed. Historically, they have been over-prescribed, and this has been a priority area for the NHS to attempt to prescribe more rationally. (NB: rationally does not necessarily mean rationing, it just means using resources more effectively.)

The UK Guidelines are clear that SMBG has an established place in the management of diabetes controlled by insulin, whether this is type one or type two. Its also accepted in the guidelines that it is useful for patients with type 2 diabetes who are at risk of hypoglycaemia. Reports such as this one from the NHS Diabetes Working Group are also clear that rationing should not be undertaken in patients who are deriving benefit from SMBG. 
 

SMBG doesn't actually do anything to control diabetes.

 It isn't an intervention, it's a testing tool. The only way it can have a positive impact on diabetes treatment is if the results are used to guide treatment or behavioural choices. So its useful for insulin dosing, for example, as it is variable and needs to be responsive to what you have eaten that day. However, if you take a twice daily dose of metformin 500mg, say, SMBG isn't going to really help anything. I think this point isn't quite as clear as it should be to some patients, carers, and even healthcare professionals.  

It only gives you a result for one pinpoint in time. It doesn't tell you anything at all about more long term control. This limits how useful it is in assessing lifestyle changes, such as exercise and longer term changes in diet.


Studies have found that some patients are not using SMBG to guide treatment changes or choices

...so they are essentially testing for no gain at all. If this is the case, then it is clear that the SMBG can be discontinued with no impact on the patient's overall care- in fact its an all-round win situation, as the NHS saves some cash and the patient no longer has to bother doing a painful test.

Its not a no risk option. Apart from the obvious discomfort of testing, there is some (although limited) evidence that some patients can feel more depressed, anxious, and even obsessive if they are using SMBG.
 

The evidence that SMBG works is very limited, 

and is confounded by lots of different factors. You can find more detailed information on the evidence base in this Medicines Q&A. The technology of SMBG was welcomed with open arms by patients and healthcare professionals alike, and it was widely accepted before there was robust evidence that it worked to improve outcomes. In these sorts of situations, where people are used to using a technology or drug etc, it becomes quite difficult to start being rational about it, without people feeling that they are having something taken away from them. If you really want to have a good look at the evidence, you can have a look at this Health Technology Asessment by Clar et al. It's only 156 pages long (!) but it is a really good quality summary of the evidence. 
 

The evidence that SMBG is cost effective is even more limited.

We simply don't know if it represents good value for money for the NHS. Meanwhile, there are interventions which we do know are cost-effective. So doesn't it make sense to limit spending on the unknown, and to put funds into the interventions that we know work instead?

Its a real shame if these sorts of issues have been ignored in favour of rationing. Rationing test strips for patients who are insulin treated isn't rational prescribing, its just daft. But there is a serious issue of overuse and over dependence on SMBG, which blanket rationing makes more difficult to address. The UK guidance makes a lot of sense given the state of the evidence we have access to at the moment, and I would be very sorry to see it being misused in some patients, whilst others are fruitlessly undertaking a needless task at a potential cost to their quality of life and the NHS. 

Hxxx

Take all of it, every scrap

There are many things in life that are not black and white. There are many arguments in which I can see where all sides are coming from, and I can understand the root of why people would disagree with me. Yet there is one area which is consistently contentious, and yet my brain can genuinely not comprehend the other side of the debate.

I'm talking about organ donation.

The news yesterday was good: there has been a 50% increase in organ donation since 2008. And yet there is still a long, long way to go.

"Last year, 125 families overruled an individual's intention to donate."- BBC News

I really, really struggle to understand why anyone would object to organ donation. I just cannot get my head round it. And overturning an individual's decision to donate their organs seems particularly bizarre to me. I understand that in the acutely shocking and devastating situation of a death you might not be thinking clearly, but... I really just don't get it. 

Maybe its my atheism. Maybe its the fact that I see death as just that and no more. I don't see it as the start of a new journey into the afterlife, or the first step on my way to meeting my maker. You just die and that's that. So I suppose its easy for me to disassociate myself from the shell that's left. I don't feel creepy about the idea that there could be bits of me in other people: in fact I feel positively proud that I might be able to help in any way.

Religions offer us a legacy. They give us the promise of a new beginning after our death, and so go some way to assuage the fear of nothingness that might follow. But it's a legacy that, in my opinion, is pretty useless. It might be comforting to our loved ones, but in the long term view of things on this planet, that doesn't mean a great deal when there are people whose lives could be made better by a chunk of my flesh being implanted into them when its no longer any use to me.

Not that I think every objection to organ donation is on religious grounds, but I suspect it may be a fairly important part of it for some people. Atheists are often told that we're evil, that we have no morals, and that we are going to hell, but to me it seems that organ donation is clearly the more morally good choice when the alternative is wanting to keep a dead person intact for ceremonial reasons. 

Some people just think its icky: the idea that a bit of you will be in someone else. I had an ex-boyfriend who thought organ donation was wrong "because its just weird" (he's an ex for a number of very definite reasons, and this is quite a prominent one). Well, I think a lot of things are icky, but they still get done because they have to be done. I can think of more pleasant things than having a smear test, for example, but I do it because it is a necessary evil. And, one has to remember a key point: you're dead. Things don't seem so icky or weird to you any more because you no longer exist. 

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

urely there is no better legacy than giving parts of ourselves to allow other people to go on living healthier, longer lives.  

And so, your homework is to (if you haven't already), think about it, speak to your loved ones about it, and sign up to the Organ Donation Register 

Hxxx

The General Pharmaceutical Council: Let's hope they do the right thing

Many years ago, just after I qualified, I was working in a new 100 hour pharmacy in a very well known supermarket chain. 

To be honest, the working conditions were pretty terrible in that store. I had brilliant staff, but not enough of them. At the time, the policy of the supermarket for 100 hour pharmacies was to have no support staff there for the first hour and a half of the day, and the last two hours of the day. I argued tooth an nail against this, as we all know that pharmacists should ideally not self-check a prescription, no matter how quiet the pharmacy was between those times. The attitude of the company was that I was in the minority, and that I was complaining unnecessarily. 

At this time I was the only permanent pharmacist working there: the rest of the time we were running on locums. The company policy was to ideally use their locum booking system, but this was notoriously unreliable. I found myself setting my alarm for 6 am every morning, getting up and getting ready to wait for a phone call to tell me I would have to go in because the locum hadn't turned up, even on my days off. I found myself doing 16 hour shifts, occasionally one after the other, and with 3.5 hours of that spent on my own.

Even without the horrendous attitudes from other managers in-store (the daily battles, the snide comments about how much I was getting paid, the total lack of understanding about pharmacy law, and the outright sexism), these conditions were brewing for a dispensing error. 

The day it happened, I was working a 14 hour shift the day after working after a 16 hour shift. I was having to check a prescription whilst also being on the phone, because of the lack of staff. I checked that the drug, strength, directions etc were correct, but I didn't spot that the wrong name was on the label. 

The patient rang up to check that the cream was the right one for them. We apologised profusely, offered to redispense, offered to go through our complaints procedure etc. the patient was happy with the reassurance that it was the right cream and refused the other measures, stating that she was quite happy that the situation was rectified.

Next thing I know, I'm being investigated by the then-regulator, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. You can't even imagine what this did to me. I was an absolute mess, convinced that I was going to lose the career I had worked so hard for. I co-operated entirely with the investigation, just as I had with the patient. I informed the inspector of the working conditions and my fears that it would lead to something more serious. None of this was taken into account in the final report, which gave me a warning, and the fright of my life. 

All this for a minor dispensing error, which caused no harm to anyone. 

You'd think, then, that the current regulator, the General Pharmaceutical Council, would come down hard on any pharmacist who actually endangered patients willingly. You'd think they would take decisive action, particularly where a pharmacist has had similar previous warnings which they have chosen to ignore. You'd think this would especially be the case where the pharmacist in question had been caught out by a BBC journalist posing as a concerned mother wondering about whether her child should be protected against whooping cough, a disease which can - and does- kill people.

See where I'm going with this? I'm hearing reports that the GPhC are suggesting that the Ainsworth's pharmacy case is nothing to do with them, and that as homeopathy is regulated by the MHRA it isnt their area. If that's the case, why is Mr Pinkus and the premises even registered with them?

I'm really hoping that this isn't the case, and that the GPhC are actually going to take decisive action. After all, what sort of a message does it give out to the public if they aren't being protected from harm? What sort of a message does it give out to the pharmacists that do their bet every day, trying their hardest to be as accurate as possible in working conditions that are ill-designed for such a purpose? 

Come on GPhC, be fair to the majority of your pharmacists who work according to your standards and actually do put patients first, and who do ensure that their recommendations are evidence-based and made with the best interests of the patient at heart. .

Hxxx
 

Let's talk about death, baby

Yep, settle in, dear friends, and lets have a think about death. Specifically, assisted suicide. 

This subject has come up quite a bit recently in the field of pharmacy and medicine. The PJ online are asking me to vote on whether or not I would refuse to dispense a prescription as part of an assisted suicide. The GMC is revisiting guidance to Drs. It's time to have a bit of a think about how we as pharmacists feel about playing a part in death.

There's a word which I think should be associated with death, and that word is dignity. People on the brink of death are still people, and I think in such discussions that fact is often forgotten,. We talk about our professional ethics, our religious choices, the impact it would have on us and our consciences, but I think we should talk-and think- more about the thoughts and needs of each dying patient. 

We're all frightened of death of course. I've been lucky enough that I haven't had much experience of it so far, but I've had enough to have experienced the lack of control one feels when faced with the death of a loved one. And all the bizarre rituals, funerals, cremations, all of these things that we do are desperate attempts to claw some control and dignity back from the situation. 

And so it is that I personally don't really need to think that much about this decision. I wouldn't hesitate to dispense medicines for assisted suicide, if it is going to give someone the dignity that they so richly deserve. 

People who believe in a god may think this is a typical example of an immoral atheist wanting to go on a legal murder rampage, playing god and interfering with when someone's "time" is. But in actual fact i think it's more about caring for the person involved, giving them respect for the person they are-and were. We need to remember that they remain a person to the end- and so should be allowed the right to choose, right up until the end.

Hopefully that makes sense. 
Hxxx 

A tale of an excellent healthcare system

It seems that everywhere you turn these days there's another horror story about the NHS. In the wake of the Mid-Staffordshire report, press, patients and staff are reeling from what seems like a never- ending list of systematic failures. Some of us in the UK are no doubt left questioning the value of the NHS, wondering whether our taxes are being spent on nurses who are more about painting their nails and chatting than looking after patients and doctors who merrily stand by as scores of patients die while they discuss what they watched on TV last night. 

As with all things, the juicier media stories come out of negative experiences. There are major failings in the NHS for sure, and my goodness we need to address them. But we need to also realise that there are a huge amount of strengths associated with our healthcare system also. Alas, our current health secretary seems hellbent on destroying the good bits once and for all. Unless we start paying attention to the good, positive stories... Well, as the cliche goes, you don't know what you've got til it's gone.

So here is a little story of my recent experience with the NHS.

As you will no doubt know by now, given my incessant whinging on the subject, I currently have guttate psoriasis. You'll probably also know that it's completely freaked me out, and caused a bit of a flare up of anxiety. 

I registered with my local doctors, which I had been meaning to do for ages. I rang at 8am and had a registration appointment by 9:30am that day. The healthcare assistant i saw was warm, friendly, and very empathetic. By 10:15 I was seen by a doctor who was equally friendly, had a good proper look at my rash, and who explored my feelings about it and helped me rationalise my anxiety about it. By 10:30 I was out the door, prescription in hand, and feeling much better. 

Fast forward a few weeks and my rash is still getting worse. I pop back to the doctors and again am seen by a doctor who takes a lot of time and effort to find out how the rash is affecting me in myself. She made me feel totally justified in my feelings and went out of her way to arrange an urgent dermatology referral for me. I had a throat swab for residual strep with the same healthcare assistant who looked after me initially and she was brilliant, chatting with me about how often her mum had to scrub the bath when her sister had eczema as a child. We had a bit of a giggle, and that was exactly what I needed. I get the feeling that had I needed a good cry, she would have been equally happy to spend time listening. 

Some might say this is just them doing their job. Maybe it is, but I think in my case they've done their job brilliantly. I've felt like I've seen people whose primary aim is to help patients like me, and who genuinely care about my emotions and quality of life.

It's little stories like this that have kept the NHS going for all these years. They're also the kind of stories that are so easily forgotten. I know from experience that a little bit of positive feedback from someone you've made a difference to can really make your week, so if you've had a similarly positive experience, no matter how small, I urge you to share it. 

Hxxx