Pharmacies lead the way with digital technologies to improve patient care

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With lessons learned from the pandemic, Kelly Grindrod’s research continues to position pharmacies as key players in public health care

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, digital technology tools helped pharmacies expand their role on the front lines of patient care. 

Online vaccination bookings, pharmacy websites that answered frequently asked questions and digital tools that managed the supplies of vaccines and other medications became essential. 

Kelly Grindrod, a professor at Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy explains that even though pharmacists have been working for years to be seen as far more than pill counters, the pandemic made them more visible and the general public began to see them in a whole new light.  
 

"The pandemic showed us that pharmacists have a much bigger role in health care than the public had realized," Grindrod says. "When a lot of family doctors had to shut down their practices or medical staff were busy in the hospitals, the pharmacists were there." 

Digital tech to streamline vaccine clinics 

Grindrod’s research focuses on user-testing of technology in health care. She has seen how digital technology has helped make pharmacies more efficient in providing health-care services. Grindrod and her students work in close collaboration with other departments, such as Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering, to do user testing of new technologies. 

One example was a  vaccine tracking app  built by Ryan Tennant, a PhD candidate supervised by Professor Catherine Burns of the Systems Design Engineering program at Waterloo. The app helped manage the complicated supply and demand of vaccines in a situation where people sometimes booked vaccine appointments but didn’t show up, while others walked in without an appointment. Vaccine clinics and pharmacies were trying to minimize unused doses at the end of the day to ensure precious vaccines were not wasted. The app was designed to help them do exactly that.   

Grindrod’s team helped test the app at two vaccine clinics in Waterloo Region so the developer could then address workflow challenges to improve it. 

"That was an example of an invisible solution that the public would never know about, but it was important in a situation where we had vaccines that were like ’liquid gold.’ It helped minimize waste and that was wonderful," she says. 

Going beyond the clinic with online education platforms 

Grindrod’s team is also involved in creating vaccine education tools for health-care stakeholders, which could be used to reach global audiences to combat vaccine misinformation. 

"You can’t just put information out there," Grindrod explains. "You need to test it with people that you want to deliver it to, and that’s where our expertise comes in. We get the feedback from a target group, in order to be able to say, ’Yes, you nailed it’ or ’no, this doesn’t help my decision.’ 
 
Prior to the pandemic, Grindrod developed the  Pharmacy 5in5  online continuing education program for pharmacists, first testing it with her students and then with alumni and practicing pharmacists. That project originated at the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy and is now being used nationally to help support busy pharmacists in their ongoing learning. 

Grindrod was also the pharmacy lead on the Waterloo Region Vaccine Task Force, helping engage pharmacists and interns in vaccination clinics. As the pandemic wanes, she hopes the pharmacies can become key to helping people catch up on the other vaccinations that have been missed over the last couple years.

Already, the Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada has asked the Ontario government to expand the role of pharmacies in providing a wider variety of publicly-funded vaccinations, beyond the COVID-19 vaccines and flu shots that people can currently get at pharmacies for free. 

The association notes that 95 per cent of Canadians live within five kilometres of a community pharmacy, which means pharmacies could become quick, convenient and efficient vaccination providers. But Grindrod believes pharmacies need better digital tools to help them overcome the logistical hurdles. 

"We are entering a new phase, when what we have been building and learning during the pandemic will have to be applied to other areas where we have fallen behind. We have enormous work to do to catch up in critical areas such as disease prevention and screening or chronic disease management," Grindrod says.

The future of digital tech in pharmacies 

The technology being used in health care today can involve everything from social media to mobile apps and connected networks, as well as technologies such as barcoding and scanning health-care cards right into a computer system. 

"What I would have thought digital technology meant five years ago now means so many more things. It’s all about information," Grindrod says. "But with all different technologies and online platforms, the user testing is important to ensure that these tools work as intended. We want to build great systems that are a lot better." 

Grindrod believes digital technology can also help to connect Canada’s very fragmented health-care system, where each province has its own way of managing health information. Even within one province, there are information "silos" in health care. 

"In the ideal health-care scenario, patients would have access to what they need, when they need it, from a team of people who understand those needs," she says. This extends beyond day-to-day care as well. "For example, if an entire community is uprooted because of a forest fire, that information needs to be accessible no matter where they end up." 

Grindrod says the lessons learned during the pandemic can help us prepare for future challenges and be a springboard to improve health care by making pharmacists across Canada and globally an extension of public health in communities.


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