The Role of Pharmacy in Social Connection and Sharing Belonging

Feb 13, 2024 | Blog, Guest Blog

Guest Blog by Jenny Kirschner

Pharmacies have a unique and personal relationship with their patients. Pharmacists and pharmacy staff all know of the many patients who visit more often, just so they can come in for an extra chat. For many older individuals who are vulnerable and live alone, pharmacy staff are sometimes their only regular face to face contact. It is important to recognise that loneliness can impact all ages and not just the elderly. In the case of community pharmacy, however, it is often the elderly patients that pharmacy staff see regularly.

The social capital that pharmacists possess within their local communities is invaluable, enabling them to identify and address the broader social context (like loneliness) that influences physical, cognitive, and mental health outcomes and medication usage.

Community pharmacy is poised for effective public health efforts including addressing loneliness and promoting social connection and belonging[1]:

  • Pharmacists are one of the most trusted health professionals and public opinion surveys have shown that 84% of adults trust the advice they receive from pharmacists.[2]
  • Pharmacists are also the most frequently accessed health professionals – on average, every person visits a community pharmacy in Australia 18 times each year.
  • Community pharmacy is highly accessible.
  • There are 5,822 community pharmacies in urban, rural, and remote areas of Australia. In Australian capital cities, 97 per cent of people have access to at least one pharmacy within a 2.5 km radius.
  • Close to 40% of the community pharmacies in Australia are open after-hours, including weekends.
  • Community pharmacies service the whole community, across all age groups, including individuals at greater risk of loneliness. For example, migrants from non-English speaking countries, new mums, & older adults with hearing loss.

Importantly, loneliness has already been found to be a contributing factor to health service use. And use of community pharmacies is no different with recent research evidence showing loneliness is associated with increased use of pharmacy services.[3]

There is also a relationship between loneliness and medication use with research showing that loneliness was associated with polypharmacy and greater opioid and benzodiazepines use in older adults.[4] More research is required for full appreciation of these relationships but it does highlight another significant reason for intervening on loneliness and the relevance to pharmacy.

How can pharmacy help?

  1. Increase the awareness of loneliness
  • Educate patients, and carers, about the health impacts of loneliness and the importance of social health.
  • Support initiatives like the Australian Loneliness Awareness week and Neighbour Day
  1. Reduce the stigma of loneliness
  • Create emotionally safe spaces in the community pharmacy so patients can talk about their experiences of loneliness

Nearly 1 in 2 Australians who feel lonely are too embarrassed to admit it to others, and nearly 1 in 2 Australians say they would conceal their loneliness. [5] The stigma associated with loneliness is preventing people from talking about it and seeking the connections they want.

  1. Empower individuals to take action
  • Pharmacy staff can empower patients to take action toward greater social health, connection and belonging, reducing their loneliness which not only improves quality of life, but can also result in greater health outcomes.

For example, utilise social prescribing principles – pharmacists can ‘prescribe’ local activities to patients to promote social connectedness.

Social Prescribing is gaining popularity globally with an opportunity for pharmacy involvement. Social Prescribing is recognised as “a means for trusted individuals in clinical and community settings to identify that a person has non-medical, health-related social needs and to subsequently connect them to non-clinical supports and services within the community by co-producing a social prescription – a non-medical prescription, to improve health and wellbeing and to strengthen community connections.” An example of this is encouraging a patient to volunteer, join a local sports club or take a dance class. Pharmacy staff could create a list of their community’s existing resources and local social activities. This way, pharmacy staff can ‘prescribe’ local activities to patients promoting connectedness.

Neighbour Day (March 31st 2024) is a great community event to promote in community pharmacies –  promoting opportunities for patients to increase social connection in their local area. Free resources can be accessed on the Neighbours Every Day website to make this easy!

Loneliness is complex and is a growing health concern, with potential significant negative health outcomes.
With the expanded scope of practice for pharmacists in Australia, it’s more crucial than ever for pharmacists to have an impact on social health and promote social connection and belonging.

Would you like to learn more?

Jenny Kirscher, BPharm (Hons), brings over two decades of experience in healthcare and pharmacy. A seasoned clinical and retail pharmacist, she is a health coach and National Health Services Pharmacist, pioneering impactful health programs. Founder of PALS (Pharmacy Addressing Loneliness and Social-isolation), Jenny leads the first global pharmacy initiative combatting social isolation’s health impacts. Her lived experience fuels expertise, making her a published authority, educating pharmacists on loneliness. A sought-after speaker at national conferences, she champions pharmacy’s role in addressing loneliness, earning the role of Australian ambassador for ISPPA. Jenny’s visionary approach extends to her inclusion in the 2023 Australian Clinical Entrepreneur program, conceiving tech-enabled solutions for loneliness.

PALS is the first international pharmacy initiative committed to raising awareness and addressing loneliness and social isolation to improve the health of patients and society. The longer-term goal is for an in-depth understanding of the health effects associated with loneliness and social isolation, and how to address them, to become an intrinsic part of pharmacy practice across Australia and globally.