“You get it wrong and there’s a whole country watching,”says Katie Porteous, Australian pharmacy owner at the forefront of the fight against the COVID pandemic.
When Katie Porteous first started working in a rural community pharmacy eight years ago, the idea of becoming one of the first pharmacies in the country to administer COVID-19 vaccines to protect Australians from a global pandemic would’ve been the last thing she thought would happen.
However, fast forward nearly a decade, Porteous now owns her own pharmacy, and has been vaccinating residents in Chinchilla, rural Queensland since early June of this year.
“I think it was definitely very scary being one of the first pharmacies, but also really exciting as well,” Porteous recalls, “refreshing all that training. It is extensive and it did take a lot of time to do all the COVID vaccination training … Then just training the staff, making sure that they were able to communicate to our patients effectively.”
Porteous and her team of two pharmacists are one of many pharmacies in the MedAdvisor network that are administering the COVID-19 jab to Australians. Collectively, the network has administered almost 6,000 in the last four to five weeks, with Porteous’ pharmacy alone contributing 230 shots.
On the frontline of COVID-19 vaccinations
At the forefront of the battle, shielding people from the deadly pandemic, Porteous explains the week of the rollout,
“I think the first week we started COVID vaccinations, we did a 100 vaccines, I think in that first week. So the workflow was just paramount.”
At an internal level, she delves into the pressure of being one of the first pharmacies in the country shouldering the responsibility.
“You feel like all eyes are on you ... Every time someone unfortunately has a side effect, that’s national news. So, every decision you make, you have in the back of your mind that if something goes wrong, that I could be on national news or something like that.”
However, after extensive training through official materials, the MedAdvisor platform and 100 vaccines later, Porteous and her team felt more confident in the process and embraced the ever-changing and fast-moving environment.
“I think I had about seven days’ notice from when I found out we were going to do the vaccinations to when we started doing that,” she explained. “[But] we could go on a lockdown any moment or advice can change. We just have to be so flexible.”
The importance of embracing the unknown
The need to be agile remains Porteous’ biggest tip to her network of pharmacists who have also been approved to administer vaccines.
“It just changes that frequently and you’ve just got to be on top of that. You get it wrong and there’s a whole country watching, so I would encourage anybody that’s doing it to really understand how important it is for the reputation of our profession to be really up to date and make sure you’re giving people the best information. And then in terms of it changing so frequently … [we really need to make] sure that we get it right.”
This tip is further echoed by Judith Mather, owner of TerryWhite Chemmart Waroona, who is also participating in the vaccine rollout, and after sending out a message to all their customers via the MedAdvisor platform, has been full since day one. While the process between administering a flu shot and a vaccine shot are very similar, Mather stresses the importance that pharmacists be organized and understand that there will inevitably be hiccups.
“You have to be very organised, well-trained staff, be familiar with the booking systems before you start and be prepared to be inundated with many questions from the customers. Putting on extra staff for the first few days so that you have breathing room to address all the customers' issues and to iron out any hiccups. And, there will be hiccups.”
Streamlining as much as possible
When asked about what other tips Porteous would recommend to approved pharmacists, she states that efficiency and streamlining is key.
“If you can get couples where you try and [vaccinate] them together, that way you can sort of go through all the information at the same time. So husbands and wives quite commonly come in together, which is really fantastic because you can go through everything together with them … you would [also] need to allow at least 15 minutes between appointments.”
Porteous and her and her team have also since been able to establish a system that allows them to balance between walk-ins, vials and other operational aspects.
Obviously our preference is if [patients] can book online … but we still get a lot of walk-ins. My dad always says the most important appointment is the next appointment ... I don’t turn them away.”
And, when asked about pre-preparing vials to maximize efficiency yet minimizing waste, Porteous explained,
“You’ll get some wastage from the vials if you don’t use them within 48 hours … But we never have wastage, I’m not worried about that.”
The fear of vaccine side effects
A heavy responsibility for Porteous and her team to carry, however, is the constant lingering risk that patients experience side effects, something that she remains incredibly conscious of and constantly ensures that patients fully know the risks associated with the vaccine.
“I want to be really clear with my patients, that I haven’t pushed [them] into this decision and that [they] understand that if you get a severe headache on day four, that I’m going to recommend [them to] go to the hospital and we’ve got to be at peace with this decision.”
This is especially the case with older patients, the majority of Porteous’ pharmacy’s customer base who are understandably more anxious about the side effects associated with the vaccine.
“You’ve just to be upfront with them and say ‘Look, it’s a small risk, but if you have any of these signs after this vaccination, we’re going to send you to the hospital and they're going to do the tests.”
“I guess initially we probably got mostly people in their fifties to sixties,” Porteous explained, “And then as time has gone on, we’ve got more people in the other age brackets who hear about it from word of mouth.”
According to the Minister of Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt,
“Community pharmacy is an essential part of the Australian healthcare system …”
Touching on the importance of the role pharmacists in Australia play in the primary healthcare circle, during our interview, Porteous hopes that after the pandemic, the importance of pharmacists will be further understood by the Australian community.
“Is the remuneration worth it? Absolutely not. But can you afford not to do it? If you were in our position, no. You have to do it. So it’s got so many other benefits … Maybe that’s going to help improve the image [of pharmacies in general] overall.”