Striving to improve

The owner of Mt Hawthorn Community Pharmacy in Perth, John Cao, a pharmacist with a long history of working in pharmacy, says his professional ethos is to “always strive for continual improvement” in areas such as operating systems and processes, while he has learnt well the importance of also striving to improve team morale.

How a team performs can mean the difference between business success or struggle, he says.

“Over the years I’ve learnt that one of the best ways to improve team morale is to identify friction points in day-to-day working and eliminate them,” he said, giving the example of problems encountered throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The little things can break us during busy and stressful times. So, if I can take that friction point away by using IT enablement or finding a better way of doing it, I will.”

Being in Western Australia has meant that Mr Cao and his team have been “quite fortunate to live a relatively normal life during the pandemic”, with “masks only needing to be worn a number of times”, and few to no Covid patients for the first two years.

However, like many other pharmacies around Australia, the Mt Hawthorn pharmacy has had to make some changes in processes and operations.

A major change, caused by the pandemic, in the way Mr Cao’s pharmacy operates relates to stock.

“Since the pandemic began, we’ve had to hold a lot more stock in the pharmacy because of the disruptions to supply chains,” he said. “Being out of in-demand products during a pandemic is one of the most painful experiences a pharmacy can face.”

In addition to stock rotation changes, another significant change that occurred, as with most pharmacies, was in the day-to-day procedures of his staff.

“Before the pandemic, all our staff were encouraged to greet and serve customers in front of the counter,” he said. “Unfortunately, since the pandemic, keeping our staff safe, we’re all standing behind our plastic barriers, behind the counter.”

But those weren’t the only accommodations the pharmacy had to make during the pandemic. The influx of bookings for Covid vaccinations also forced “complete change” in workflows.

“We started providing Covid vaccinations during the last week of September [last year] when Moderna first rolled out in community pharmacy,” Mr Cao said.

“From September to December, we averaged about 50 vaccinations a week, which our team was very proud of. However, by the end of December, when booster shots were announced by the government, our bookings quickly rose to more than 100 each day.”

The pharmacy was able to provide “144 vaccinations in one day” and “2056 vaccinations in a month”, which Mr Cao regards as a recent career highlight.

“To accommodate such an exceptional rise in bookings we had to completely change our workflows because we were literally providing a vaccination every three minutes,” he said.

“We had two pharmacists just providing vaccinations, while the rest of the team supported them with pre-screening patients, answering questions, drawing, preparing and selecting the correct vaccines for administration, while still servicing our regular patients requesting OTC medications and prescriptions.”

Improvements carried out at the pharmacy early in the Covid era proved to be especially beneficial.

“We were very fortunate to have completed a full refit of our pharmacy at the beginning of the pandemic,” Mr Cao said. “The refit doubled the size of the dispensary and added two 12sqm consulting rooms and a Rowa dispensing robot. It was like the decisions we made when the pandemic first hit paid off in spades when we needed them most.”

The ability to make rapid decisions has not only facilitated success during the pandemic, he adds, but it’s also what has kept his pharmacy as an independent business rather than it becoming part of a bigger brand.

“I’ve always liked to be able to make decisions quickly without the need for approvals from banner groups,” Mr Cao said. “I also enjoy the flexibility to choose what product ranges I’d like to keep, how they’re merchandised, and more importantly, how they’re priced. I just like being in full control of my business. It’s also nice being that small business that locals love to support because we’re not a national brand.”

While being a small business means greater local community support, another aspect of the pharmacy that Mr Cao says his customers enjoy is “the convenience of our location”.

“We’re situated between a Woolworths supermarket and a playground for the kids,” he said. “Our staff have been very stable for the last few years, so we know all our regulars by name, enjoy getting to know them and their families, and, most importantly, go out of our way to solve their health-related problems.”

Mr Cao says the pharmacy’s most popular service to date has been providing Covid vaccinations.

“Our systems are very streamlined and efficient,” he said, “and our vaccinating pharmacists are very experienced. It’s very important to have the right infrastructure if you want to provide an excellent service.”

An example of such efficient infrastructure and set-up is the proximity of the main consultation room to the dispensary for ease of access, he says.

“It has a sink, lots of space for the patient and any extra family members,” Mr Cao said of the room.

He adds that another key to successful service provision is not striving for perfection.

“I believe ‘perfection’ is the enemy of progress,” Mr Cao said. “You can spend a lot of time holding back on providing a service because you’re trying to make it perfect. I like to jump in before it’s anywhere near perfect and strive for constant improvement in my offering over time.”

What does the future hold for Mt Hawthorn Community Pharmacy?

“I have a feeling that the worst part of the pandemic is over and we’re finally transitioning to living with Covid,” Mr Cao said. “This will be our first year since the pandemic [began] with flu over the winter, so I’m predicting the flu vaccinations will be in high demand. I’m hoping that a number of the patients that we vaccinated [against Covid] will become regular customers of our pharmacy.”

And in terms of future services?

“I’m looking forward to rolling out more professional services, but more importantly, just having a well deserved break and a holiday overseas,” Mr Cao said, echoing the post-Covid desires of many in the community.

“It’s hard to remember a life before Covid, but it would be nice to just see what it looks like after Covid, before we make any plans for the future.”

This feature is part of the pharmacy profile feature that was originally published in the April issue of Retail Pharmacy magazine.

To read the feature in full as it appears in the magazine, visit: retailpharmacymagazine.com.au/magazine/retail-pharmacy-april-2022

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