“Are you interested in shaping the future of pharmacy in Hong Kong?”

This question popped up in Matthew's Facebook inbox one day. One of the co-founders of Pharmacists Connect, asked him if he was interested coming on-board to improve the pharmacy landscape in Hong Kong. They did not know each other before then.

Matthew was not the only one who received this invitation. Driven by the common passion to shaping the future of pharmacy in Hong Kong, a group of young and passionate pharmacists decided to build a community – Pharmacists Connect.

“We were figuring what we should do when we had our first dinner last July. At that time, we noticed there were some pharmacy graduates who were unable to find jobs – due to a surplus of pharmacists in the city,” Matthew recalled.

“Instead of mere ranting about the situation, we wished we could convert these negative emotions to positive energy. Then, we could push for changes in terms of development progress within the pharmacy scene in Hong Kong,” Karen continued. “We believe we cannot just wait for things to happen. The future of pharmacy in Hong Kong lies in our hands. We got to fight for the opportunities ourselves.”

In this exclusive interview, co-founders of Pharmacists Connect shared with MIMS their visions in uniting the cross sector voices of pharmacists—and ultimately, shaping the future of the pharmacy profession in the city for the benefit of the public health.

Connect and unite all pharmacists in Hong Kong

“If you take a look at the incidents whereby doctors in public hospitals organise sit-in to demand pay raise or when they protest against medical council reform – you would observe that doctors in Hong Kong are very united,” Matthew described. “Sadly, this is not the case for pharmacists.”

Currently, there are mainly three societies established for pharmacists in Hong Kong. They are the Pharmaceutical Society of Hong Kong, the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong and the Practising Pharmacists Association of Hong Kong.

“They might have different stances on some topics. Let’s take the Public Private Partnership (PPP) as an example; while some of them are supportive of the plan to reduce medical errors, some of them might be more concerned whether their pharmacies have sufficient manpower to uphold the service quality,” commented Jason. “For us, we want to take a neutral stance and reflect the voices from all parties.”

In particular, they want to reflect the voices of young pharmacists in the city – uniting them under one umbrella. “Not only the unemployed pharmacists; but also the young pharmacists in different practices, e.g. hospitals, community pharmacies and elderly homes,” Matthew emphasised. “Many times when a graduate manages to find a stable job, he or she will no longer be interested in participating in discussions on public health issues,” he elaborated.

“Policies related to the development of pharmacy profession are usually proposed by these three societies after they reach a consensus. However, besides the committees and members, there are many pharmacists out there who may not be aware of or agree with the policies they propose,” noted Jason. “We want to empower the silent majority.”

The silent majority does not only include the pharmacists in the field; but also students who are pursuing their tertiary education in pharmacy. “Especially for the first year pharmacy students, they are normally engrossed in studies. We cannot rely solely on what we learn in the lecture halls or tutorial rooms to enable us to fulfil our roles as a pharmacist to provide quality service for patients. The role of pharmacists is underutilised in Hong Kong. That’s why we want to remind them that on top of getting good grades, they have to pay attention to what is happening in our industry, in the society. They have to think about ways how they could maximise their roles when they graduate,” Karen added.

Promoting intradisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration for patient care

Apart from pharmacists and pharmacy students, Pharmacists Connect is also reaching out to allied health professionals.

“There are around 2700 registered pharmacists in Hong Kong. The number is relatively small compared to other healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses,” remarked Jason. “However, if we can connect with other allied health professionals, we can unite a stronger voice.”

The idea is also built on the concept of preventive health. “The government has been promoting primary care; but it only focuses on enhancing the role of family doctors,” explained Karen. “The government should also consider promoting the roles of all allied health professionals.”

With more people getting to know the roles of these healthcare professionals, they believe this could uphold the quality of patient care.

“Although the doctors were united under the controversial medical reform, they unintentionally created a standoff against the general public,” Karen described. “That’s why we want to emphasise our ultimate mission is to improve patient care.”

Enhancing health and medication literacy of the public

To Pharmacists Connect, ensuring the public understand the role of pharmacists is an indispensable step to improve patient care. By acknowledging the role of pharmacists, the patients know they could seek help from pharmacists whenever they encounter drug related issues.

“There were times when I joined outreach service to the elderly, and they said to us “goodbye doctors and nurses” towards the end of our service,” Karen recalled. “Most of them did not understand the role of pharmacists and were not even aware of the pharmacy profession.”

The level of health literacy is undoubtedly low in Hong Kong, especially for the elderly. “When I was in university, I went on an exchange programme to France. I was so surprised to see the patients there know the names, indications and administration of the medications they are taking,” Karen recalled.

In stark contrast, according to her internship experience in Hong Kong’s public hospitals—it is extremely rare to see patients understand the uses of the drugs. “What’s more disturbing is they did not follow the correct dosages and directions of use for various medications. Some of them even discontinued their medications without the doctor’s consent. When doctors see there is no improvement in their conditions, they prescribe the patients a higher dosage,” commented Karen. “This cannot tackle the reason why the patients were admitted to the hospital. It is also a waste of resources.”

Apart from coordinating outreach services to educate the public the role of pharmacists, Pharmacists Connect also wishes to make use of quality evidence to validate the effectiveness of certain measures in enhancing the health of the public.

Pharmacists Connect’s policy research group gathered and carried out discussion and research on some pharmacy related topics and policies.
Pharmacists Connect’s policy research group gathered and carried out discussion and research on some pharmacy related topics and policies.

“We have a policy research group at Pharmacists Connect. While we have been advocating to maximise the role of pharmacists, we also want to justify the government’s investment by measuring our impact,” said Karen. “For instance, if the community pharmacies are providing drug counselling service through PPP, we should look into the data to validate if it can reduce drug waste in the end. This way, the programme can be sustainable,” she added.

The future of pharmacy in Hong Kong

Despite the uncertainties and challenges ahead, the group is excited and determined to initiate a movement to unite the voices of pharmacists in the city.

When asked if they regret choosing a career in pharmacy – given such difficult situation of the profession –without missing a beat, Jason took the lead and responded with an answer.

“If you came across any news or articles that talk about the top 10 professions, pharmacists would always be on the list. Attractive remuneration and welfare, at least that’s what I heard in the old days,” laughed Jason. “But I believe every profession, or industry, experience peaks and troughs from time to time. Crisis brings opportunity and change. If there are no challenges ahead and we all can secure a stable job position, perhaps Pharmacists Connect would not have existed at all in the first place,” he concluded. MIMS

Read more:
Pharmacist surplus: Interview with William Chun-Ming Chui on how Public Private Partnership (PPP) and maximizing the role of pharmacists in public hospitals can close the gap
From outreach pharmacists to joint school outreach program
Pharmacists among the only healthcare professionals experiencing a surplus in Hong Kong
Hong Kong considering Public Private Partnership (PPP) to reduce drug waste