Lessons Learned

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When I left pharmacy school over 20 years ago, I thought I had attained all the knowledge I needed in order to care for patients.  The one thing that all those years of studying didn’t teach me was that my patients were going to become my greatest teachers.

Here are the five most important lessons I have learned from my patients.

 

  1. Listen first. In school we are often taught the importance of “telling” a patient what they need to know about a drug or a medical condition. We practice over and over imparting the top five or so points about a medication, from how to take it to the myriad of possible side effects.  How many times have I spit out the knowledge in my head, then after listening to the patient I realize that it was either too much information, not applicable to their daily life or they just didn’t understand.  Over the years I have become a much better listener.  My patients have taught me that each person and situation is unique and to truly care for them means to simply listen.

 

  1. Trust requires work. When a patient comes to me for advice, they are trusting my assessment of their current condition and medical history. They trust I am not simply giving them random advice; that what I advise is backed by science, is evidence based and supported by my education, training and experience. Upholding this trust requires work. As much as possible I need to keep up with recent guidelines, studies and lines of inquiry in evidence based medicine.

 

  1. Many patients over the years have demonstrated amazing perseverance throughout incredible pain, suffering and loss. They have taught me to keep finding the positive and most especially, to endeavor to live with a posture of gratitude.

 

  1. Look beyond the surface.  As health professionals we often don’t see beyond the immediate presentation of the person in front of us. A patient’s short temper, harsh words or impatience is often directed at us or our staff. Over the years I have learned that the root of behavior is far different from what I see. Patients have taught me that behind the behavior is often a myriad of other issues such as pain, inability to cope, grief, and other emotions or life circumstances that have nothing to do with me, so I don’t take it personally.

 

  1. Empathy goes a long way. Even if I cannot directly relate to being held captive by addiction or have unrelenting pain, I can still express empathy for the human suffering of my patients.  Even in tough situations such as a person going through narcotic withdrawal, the care I provide is much more effective and meaningful when patients feel that first, I am on their side, even when I have to say no or make a tough call.

 

Ultimately, the human side of patient care cannot be taught in school, it can only be taught to us by those we care for, and I look forward to my continued learning.

 

 

Intake: Where it’s at

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Typical day in our pharmacy.  Pharmacists are at intake engaging with patients.  Yes, we did not tidy up before I snapped this candid of my staff!

When I graduated from pharmacy over 20 years ago, the buzz and excitement at the time was “pharmaceutical care”.  I can remember carrying to my first job a copy of Hepler and Strand’s “Opportunities and Responsibilities in Pharmaceutical Care”(1990).  Such was my enthusiasm to provide this type of care to patients.

What ensued was 20 years of practice where the majority of my time was spent signing my name on the plethora of prescriptions presented to me.  Mixed in with some counselling on new prescriptions or a smattering of other tasks such as dealing with drug plans, inventory, orders and narcotics, what’s striking is that about 80% of my time was spent on technical tasks which did not require the university degree I had worked so hard to attain.

Pharmacy practice has largely remained unchanged over the past 20 years.  Pharmacists still perform technical tasks a large majority of their time, tasks more suited to registered technicians and assistants.  Often the only interaction pharmacists have with patients is to give verbal and written information about new drugs.

It is not surprising that real change has not occurred in pharmacy practice as the profitability in pharmacy has historically depended on the drug product going out the pharmacy door as quickly as possible. Pharmacists, as the final check, were the rate limiting step for profitability, thus honing our skills for fast, efficient dispensing was paramount.

Today however, with the convergence of expanded scope practice and the changing landscape of pharmacy reimbursement, billable and cash paying services, the time is ideal for pharmacists to step out front and fully embrace our role as pharmaceutical care providers.  Medication reviews, care plans, adapting therapy, chronic disease management are all about optimizing drug therapy and solving drug related problems (DRPs).

However.…we simply cannot do this on the back end of work flow when we’re checking prescriptions.

Pharmaceutical care requires that we work WITH the patient, engaging them in their own care and decision making, becoming involved in their therapy, taking responsibility for drug therapy decisions and collaborating with other care providers.  To do this we need to be out front.  We need to dialogue with patients when they present to allow for assessment of their medications, chief complaints and chronic disease therapy.   The “pharmacist at intake” model has yet to be widely adopted, but initial pharmacist assessment is absolutely critical to providing patient centered care.  Here’s my top 5 reasons why:

  1. It is nearly impossible to find and resolve DRPs with only a patient profile and a prescription hard copy in front of you (ie: the most common “pharmacist checking” scenario). The vast majority of problems are not discovered due to a lack of discussion with the patient. Assessment of the patient (not just the patient’s file) and shared decision making along with the patient are essential.
  2. Checking prescriptions can be done at a fraction of the cost by a registered technician. Pharmacists are no longer needed for back end checking. Therapeutic assessment of the prescription can be done on the front end of work flow along with the patient.
  3. If our only interaction with a patient is to provide information (ie: counselling), we will shortly be regarded as irrelevant. This is the information age and approximately 92% of adults aged 18-39 now carry a computer in their pocket.  Information is at our patients’ fingertips and pharmacists are no longer the only source of drug information.
  4. Profitability from drug product is shrinking (low fees/margin, PPNs, loss of rebates/pan-Canadian, cuts on short fills/blister packaging). Profitability from expanded services is increasing.  Identifying opportunities and providing expanded scope service requires assessment and engagement of the patient by the pharmacist.
  5. Pharmacist on the back end is highly in-efficient.  If a pharmacist does discover a DRP through back-end counselling, the prescription has already been entered, prepared, checked, and the patient has waited.  Now the team must go through the entire process again to fix the problem and the patient waits yet again.  This is a highly inefficient use of staff resources.

 

Pharmacists have an incredible opportunity to step into their true role. No other profession has the expertise to guide patients and engage in shared decision making to optimize drug therapy.  Pharmacists have unique knowledge of therapeutic guidelines, patients’ current drug therapy, alternative drug therapy options, drug benefit lists, drug administration solutions, and previous response to medications. We cannot afford to wait another 20 years.  We need to step out from behind the counter and engage our patients where they’re at.

E =

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E = EXACT

Health Care is not an exact science.  That’s right.  We want it to be…and I see much frustration, disappointment and even desperation because of this fact, but it’s the truth.  Despite all the medical advances and advertising of drugs that seem to point to the opposite, there really isn’t a “pill” for every illness or a test to diagnose every medical condition.  Sometimes there is no clear cut answer to a health problem, nor a solution.

Medicine and Pharmacy are applied science which means we take science and apply it to people.  We take everything we know about anatomy, microbiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, therapeutics, etc., and apply it to individuals who have their own unique physical, biological and genetic differences (not to mention the social, cultural, and psychological aspects).  From this application of knowledge to each individual situation, diagnosis is made and treatments are decided upon.

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E = ERRORS

This applying of science also means that medical care is not perfect.  Combine that with the speed at which this knowledge needs to be applied to patients and situations, errors are inevitable.  Here’s a quote from Dr. Brian Goldman that had me thinking this week.

What I’ve learned is that errors are absolutely ubiquitous. We work in a system where errors happen every day.  Where 1 in 10 medications are either the wrong medication given in hospital or the wrong dosage…  In this country as many as 24,000 Canadians die  [every year] from preventable medical errors. [which is a gross underestimate]

We all know someone who has had sub-optimal medical care or errors made in their care.  Often there is anger towards the professionals that made the mistake.  I’ve been on both ends of that situation.

There is an expectation of perfection in health care.  As patients we expect our health professionals to be competent, and so we should.  But as a health professional I know we are all human and lack perfection.  We all fall short and can make mistakes.

I’ve made mistakes in my career and will most likely make a few more before I am done.  Fortunately I have never made a mistake that has seriously harmed someone or caused a death.  But I know each time I put my lab coat on it is a real possibility.

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E= e-PATIENT

The possibility for error is why I continually encourage people to be engaged in their health care.   Not because you shouldn’t trust your health providers.  Quite the opposite.  You need to be an active partner so a trust relationship is essential. Working as a team is the best way to ensure optimum health care.  How can you do this?  Get to know your own body, your medical conditions, your medications.  Ask questionsWe need you to be as educated as possible.

More and more patients are getting health information over the internet.  (Interestingly, Health Professionals are often divided over this.  Some thinking this is great and others not so much).  I think the more knowledge you acquire about your own health the better.  And this is where the trust relationship comes into play.  Yes, there can be some bad information out there.  So you check it out with your doctor or pharmacist.

Last week I had a patient in tears because she had read on the internet that her diabetes medication could give her seizures and she didn’t know what to do.  Was that good information?  No.  It wasn’t true.  But I didn’t advise her to stay away from internet health information.  I provided her with some reputable sites and encouraged her to learn more about her disease and contact me in a week to go over what she had learned.   As one e-patient says in this video, “When push comes to shove you check with your [health professional]. They’re there for a reason”

Here’s an example of the growing movement of “e-patients.”  As you’ll see, the “e” stands for many great attributes that can lead to a safer, more participatory, less paternalistic model of health care.

Dr. Oz and the Ruby Slippers

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I really wish Dr Oz would just put on his ruby slippers and go home. Just click those heels three times and retire.

That may sound harsh, and I usually don’t make such blanket statements, but honestly, he’s starting to do some real damage.

Like Oprah, when Dr. Oz speaks, millions of people listen. His level of influence in the average North American household has become almost iconic. Millions turn to him for advice. That would be a good thing if he was a health professional with integrity and his advice was backed by science. The reality is quite the opposite. Here’s my beef with Oz.

Dr. Oz puts profit before people.

When Dr. Oz first started out on Oprah, his information and health recommendations were fairly standard, typical of your family doctor with some Hollywood spin. Over the years, however, he has become more “Hollywood”and less “doctor”. He sensationalizes medicine, often offering quick fixes with unproven therapy. It makes for great sound bites (like the un-workout workout) and it sells, but it’s not based on science. In fact, coming soon is his own product line of unproven supplements. It doesn’t matter that he lacks the science to back up his claims. His name sells and so will his unproven products.

His advice can be dangerous

Diabetes can be prevented with vinegar and coffee. Really? If that were true, I know many of my patients would be reaching for more pie; just add a cup of coffee and it’s all good. Instead, what is proven by science is that weight management and good nutrition can delay Type 2 Diabetes.
If a person needs to lose weight to reduce their risk of having a heart attack or stroke and Dr. Oz says all they have to do is take white kidney bean pills and they can eat all the cake they want…that’s dangerous.
How about having a doctor on his show that believes cancer can be cured with baking soda? Not kidding.

Dr. Oz presents “Pseudo-Science” as fact

Pseudo-science is presenting a claim or belief as scientifically valid without having the scientific supporting evidence. Here’s what we mean by science:

What we mean by “science” is simply rigorous methods of observation. Good science looks at all the evidence (rather than cherry picking only favorable evidence), controls for variables so we can identify what is actually working, uses blinded observations so as to minimize the effects of bias, and uses internally consistent logic. Steven Novella, MD

Are there some studies showing coffee has an effect on diabetes risk? Yes. Can we use these studies to make sweeping statements that affect people’s health? No. That would be irresponsible. All that is proven by a few small studies is that more studies in that area need to be done.

Dr.Oz takes “bad science” or limited science and presents it as fact. That’s irresponsible.

I’ve been in health care long enough to see really good studies point to facts that we incorporate into our practices as health care professionals. But 10 years later (after more studies with larger numbers of people, going on for a longer time), the original studies are proven to be misleading or even point to the opposite conclusion. Studies need to be examined with the eye of a sceptic and there is a science in itself to evaluating the strength and validity of scientific studies.

When people come to me with health concerns looking for advice, they are in essence sharing a trust. Patients expect me to be honest and to have their best interest at heart. They expect that my advice will be based on scientific evidence, not on anecdotes, popularity or profit. Patients should expect that from all their health providers.

Dr. Oz fails on all fronts. So, Dr. Oz, if the ruby slippers don’t fit, perhaps you can take the job of the original Oz behind the curtain. After all, he was a charlatan too.

5 Must Ask Questions About Your Prescription

When you are handed a prescription by your physician or your pharmacist there are many questions you should know the answer to before walking out the door. Below I highlight my top five.

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  1. What is this medication for?

This may seem obvious, but countless times when I ask a patient if they know what their prescription is for they tell me they have no idea.  When someone doesn’t know what a medication is for, there is little motivation to take it correctly or even at all.  Most drugs have more than one indicated use.  Know what yours are being used for.

2. What will happen if I don’t take this medication?

This may seem a strange question, but the reality is that over 50% of medication prescribed is either taken incorrectly or not at all.  (Health professionals are a little vain- we tend to think if we prescribe it, you will take it.) If you don’t take your high blood pressure medication, you have a higher chance of having a heart attack or damaging your kidneys.  If you don’t take an antibiotic for a nasty cold…well, really nothing is going to happen because antibiotics do not work for colds.  There are many prescriptions that are unnecessary or could be avoided with “watchful waiting” and there are some prescriptions that can be deadly if you do not take them exactly as prescribed.

3.  When can I expect this medication to work for me?

An important piece of information.  Will it treat my problem/condition in an hour or in 2 months?  Knowing what to expect is essential.  Someone being treated for clinical depression needs to know that the medication they are getting may not start to work for 2 to 6 weeks.  That’s a long time if you are expecting to feel better tomorrow.  Equally important is a person in acute pain to know that the pain medication should start working in an hour or so.  If not, it may need to be adjusted.  And if after 3 days of antibiotics your skin infection is spreading, don’t wait for the ten days of pills to be over.  You need to be reassessed right away. Know what to expect and always ask questions if you are unsure.

4.  What do I do if I have a problem with this medication?

Not all problems or side effects require another appointment.  Many issues can be solved by tweaking the dose, timing, formulation or way of taking the medication.  Sometimes a change of medication is necessary.  Find out what some of the common problems or side effects of your medication are and what you can do about them if they happen.

5.  Can I take this medication with all my other medications?

I find that most patients will ask me about this.  What is often missed though are the non-prescription medications, vitamins or herbal products they are taking.  Patients tend not to mention these as they are often viewed as “safe” and not harmful.  But in fact, there are many vitamins and “natural” products that can interact with prescription medications.  It is important to mention them all.

We all know it is impossible to remember everything your doctor or pharmacist tells you.  And that is where follow-up and communication comes in.  When I see a patient I advise them of any follow-up that is needed or how to reach me for questions. Typically by phone or email, but for more complicated learning I’ll see the patient in the office. Whether your nurse, pharmacist or physician provides you with your prescription, ensure you receive proper follow-up and educate yourself.  You are the person with the most vested interest in your own health.