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One of the first ‘Supercare Pharmacies’ in Victoria, Peter O’Connor’s Carnovale Pharmacy stays open 24 hours a day. He discusses the work involved in providing a round-the-clock service, ongoing challenges and making the most of opportunities to build his business.

For Peter O'Connor, the night of November 21st, 2016, was one to remember. “I have never seen anything remotely like it in 25 years of working in pharmacies,” he says.

As one of the first five ‘Supercare Pharmacies’ in Victoria, his Carnovale Pharmacy has been open day and night since June 2016. So, when an unprecedented thunderstorm asthma event caused a surge in after-hours demand for medication, he was on hand to help.

“It was frantic,” he says. “The thunderstorm happened at about 6.45pm and the first person presented with asthma soon after. From there it just snowballed through the night.”

Asthma Australia Chief Executive Officer Michele Goldman says that, for people with asthma, having access to the advice of pharmacists and appropriate medications is an important part of staying well.

“Asthma can strike at any time and symptoms can escalate quickly so pharmacies that are open out of normal business hours are a great resource,” she says.

Three weeks to a new business model

An initiative of the Victorian Government, Supercare Pharmacies are contracted to stay open 24 hours a day and provide a free nursing service between 6pm and 10pm.

“I submitted a tender because I thought it would be a good fit for us as we were already open till 9pm,” says O’Connor.

When he was finally given the go-ahead, he had just three weeks to get his new business model up and running. This included hiring pharmacists and non-qualified staff and finding a contractor to provide overnight security guards.

“Luckily, there were a lot of excellent pharmacists willing to take on the night shift,” he says.

Building relationships to build the business

The Government has two main aims in funding Supercare Pharmacies. The first is to keep people with minor ailments out of over-stretched hospital emergency departments. The second is to provide people – especially parents of young children – with advice and medical products through the night.

“24-hour pharmacies provide an alternative to a long late-night wait and, often, people who decide to go to hospital are told by the triage nurse they can get appropriate treatment from a pharmacist,” says O’Connor. “There are also people who get discharged from hospital during the night with a prescription. Now they don’t have to wait until morning for the medication they need.”

He has paid several visits to local hospitals to promote his service and build relationships with emergency department staff.

“I put up brochures and speak to the head triage nurses, who have all told me they think staying open all night is a great idea,” he says. “We’re not keeping records but a lot of people tell us they’ve been sent by an emergency department. I expect this traffic to increase as more people become aware of what we offer.

At the moment, the pharmacy is extremely busy each night until about midnight, while trade tends to fall off during the early hours.

“I think this model would work even better if we had an all-night or late-opening medical practice close by,” says O’Connor.

Spreading the word

The Victorian Government has committed $28.7 million to creating 20 Supercare Pharmacies by 2018 and, nationally, the role played by pharmacies is continuing to grow. The Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, told the audience at this year’s Australian Pharmacy Professional Conference that the Government’s vision for an even better health system involves an expanded health care role for pharmacists.

“Pharmacists are being trained to do vaccinations now and the government is trialling programs such as screening for diabetes and coordinating the care of people who are discharged from hospital,” says O’Connor.

But lack of community education could mean the services are underused.

“It’s one thing to train and enable us to provide the programs, another to let people know they exist,” says O’Connor.

“People are also having a bit of trouble getting their head around the idea of going to a pharmacy for these kinds of services – even a nurse doesn’t feel like a natural fit. But we’ve done a bit of local promotion for our own nursing service and people are starting to respond to that. I also think there’s an opportunity to collaborate with general practitioners and practice nurses. We’re essentially taking routine tasks off their hands so they have more time for the services only they can provide.”

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