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Dawn Richards weaves advocacy into her daily routine – here’s how

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Patients and caregivers are looking for more from their pharmacist than a prescription refill and perfunctory smile.

By donalee Moulton

Photography by Brandon Gray

They want a deeper relationship – and advocacy is a critical part of that more meaningful relationship.

“I would feel better knowing that my pharmacist is advocating on my behalf for my better health. It builds confidence and trust,” says Dr. Dawn Richards (PhD), a patient advocate and vice president of the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance Steering Committee who lives in Toronto.

Richards, who lives with rheumatoid arthritis, advocates for arthritis awareness, access to treatment, and the inclusion of patients in decision-making. She recognizes both the opportunities and challenges advocacy presents to frontline pharmacists. For some pharmacists, this is unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. “There is no recipe for advocacy. You don’t go to school to learn this,” notes Richards.

At its core, she says, advocacy involves sharing information that is important to the patient and the pharmacist. “You are creating a message about what you and your profession can do to enhance health care. This helps patients to be better informed and encourages them to be more fully engaged in their own health.”

That message does not have to be shouted from the rooftops, Richards adds. “There is a misconception about advocacy. It doesn’t mean standing on a soapbox with a megaphone. It’s about getting your message out in a way that reflects your personality and your preferred approach. It doesn’t mean you have to change who you are or how you prefer to communicate.”

For frontline pharmacists, the best opportunities for advocacy are the ones that present themselves naturally throughout the day as patients pick up prescriptions, ask for advice, and purchase other products. “You can weave advocacy into your day-to-day interactions with patients,” notes Richards. “This can be as simple as encouraging patients to ask questions of you or of their other healthcare providers.”

“Conversations with patients are about more than detailing instructions and exchanging pleasantries. They are about providing substantive and relevant health information,” she adds.

For patients, advice, insight, and information are important. It enables them to see the pharmacist in a broader light while also respecting them as an individual and a professional. “Offering information without being asked, suggesting resources that might be helpful, and pointing them towards community supports reaffirm how valuable – and how essential – pharmacists are in the healthcare system,” says Richards. “Patients see you and what you do in a different light. This is the most effective way to build partnerships and relationships over time.”

“Advocating on behalf of and with patients does not need to be time-consuming,” she adds. “It doesn’t have to take up a lot of your day or add extra hours to your work week. It can become part of your ongoing interaction with patients and others.”

Pharmacists will need to keep abreast of local and larger issues – those that patients are likely to hear about, inquire about, and be concerned about. In the arthritis community, for example, the topic of new treatments is always timely and patients are seeking out information from trusted professionals. “Subjects like this are important to patients, but they often don’t know where to turn for reliable information,” notes Richards. “That’s where pharmacists can be an immense help. They can address patients’ questions and point them to other dependable resources, whether online or material in the store.”

Richards also recommends pharmacists advocate beyond their patients, through their professional associations and community organizations. Getting involved doesn’t have to translate into numerous hours of volunteer time, but it can be a convenient and easy way to stay informed and engaged. “You can determine the extent and nature of your involvement while keeping advocacy on the front burner,” says Richards. “Your voice is essential to your patients and your profession.”