Rachel Patel is a pioneer in Canadian virtual pharmacy services and is a member of the TELUS Health Virtual Pharmacy clinical team. We caught up with Rachel to learn more about her journey and why she loves her job.
When did you know you wanted to be a pharmacist?
I was in Grade 9 and working part time at my local drug store. One day, the pharmacist was really backed up and she asked me to help her out in the dispensary. I loved the energy, the focus and the passion for patients. I never looked back.
You were a very early player in the virtual pharmacy world. How did that start?
Twenty years ago I joined a wonderful family-owned retail pharmacy company and one day the owner came to me and said “I think there is an opportunity to do what we do in the online world.” The more he shared his vision, the more excited I got and that was really how this whole thing started. I’m not a technical person but it just seemed like a no-brainer to offer a simple, convenient way for people to order their medications online.
What kinds of barriers did you overcome to launch a virtual pharmacy?
One of the biggest was letting people know that we were a legitimate, home-grown Canadian pharmacy with quality products and qualified people. Once consumers realized we were just like their bricks and mortar pharmacy, we started to grow quickly. Many people were already comfortable with ecommerce, and we focused on keeping our service simple and accessible with real people they could call if they needed help.
Describe a typical customer.
That’s the best part. We serve such a broad mix of people. We have younger people who just want to get their medications ordered and shipped as fast as possible; we have a lot of seniors who want to be able to see their medication history and ask questions and take their time; we have busy families with multiple prescriptions who are looking for simplicity, and we work with many people who have complex needs and need personal support from the pharmacists.
Did the pandemic have an impact on the virtual pharmacy?
For sure we had a lot of new clients, both individuals and employees, whose group health plans are offering it as a benefit. I think we saw that people in Canada were happy to embrace all kinds of virtual healthcare including pharmacy, physician and other services. I’m proud of how our team delivered not just medications but personal connections. The past two years have been very scary and very isolating for a lot of people, so being able to be a reassuring voice has been really profound.
Let’s talk about the personal connection. How does that work in a virtual pharmacy?
It’s really great. Our customers use the mobile app or the website to book an appointment with one of the pharmacists, like me. We can use a video call, a regular voice call or even a text chat to communicate. The best part is that we have a blocked off time where it’s just me and the patient or caregiver. They’re comfortable and in a place of their choosing and I’m in a private, secluded area with their profile in front of me. We can take our time and talk about whatever is on their mind.
What sorts of things do you discuss?
It can be literally anything! Sometimes we are reviewing medications, making sure they are working and discussing possible side effects. Other times I’m talking about mental health, birth control, sexual dysfunction or where they can access other types of care.
You mentioned access to care. Does virtual pharmacy address barriers to care?
For sure. In some cases we are helping patients find nearby clinics where they can be seen in person or we’re directing them to other virtual services for support. Many patients aren’t aware of the range of virtual care they can get. It’s nice that other TELUS Health services are integrated with the virtual pharmacy so patients can request that prescriptions come straight to us and we can send them out right away.
Do you and the other TELUS Health Virtual Pharmacy pharmacists help patients with mental health concerns?
Pharmacists often support people who are dealing with mental health issues. One of the main areas we work in is helping them understand their medications. Many mental health drugs take a while to start working and patients can get concerned that they aren’t working at all. We take the time to look at what they are taking and help them set realistic expectations for what to expect. And if it doesn’t seem to be working, we will recommend they go back to their physician. Side effects are also common with some of these medications, and we work with patients to manage them with diet, lifestyle and other medication support. Of course, we can also help with referrals to specialized mental healthcare, either through virtual or in-person clinics.
What does a typical day look like for you?
We have three dispensaries across Canada and they all operate the same way. We start the day by checking the roster to see what prescriptions are in the queue. Each team member has a workflow area for the day and we get started on filling our orders. My role is to look at new prescriptions, to make sure the medication and dosage looks appropriate before we process it. I walk around a lot and see how everything is moving through the dispensary, I exchange messages with physicians about specific prescriptions, and I get to talk to patients in our private consults. As the prescriptions are filled, the other pharmacists and I do a final check before the orders are packaged for shipping. Every order has two different pharmacists reviewing it. We have a great team and the days really fly by.
What is the culture like at TELUS Health Virtual Pharmacy?
We’re a family. Everyone knows everyone else and we take great care of each other. We are open and very upfront about how we want the pharmacy to be run. This culture is really a carry-over from the days when we were a retail mom-and-pop shop and it’s a very good fit with the TELUS Health culture as well.
What is challenging for you?
Like any pharmacist, I worry a lot about medication non-compliance or adherence. Studies show that about one-quarter of plan members don’t take their medications properly. Sometimes they forget or they don’t understand the instructions and other times they are concerned about the cost so they are skipping doses. And of course, the issue is that patients not only won’t get well, they may deteriorate and their diabetes or blood pressure will go off track or their mental health will decline. That’s why I like the virtual consults: I can surface these kinds of issues and help patients before they lose ground.
How do you help patients who are worried about medication costs?
That’s a huge issue for seniors and people living on fixed incomes but we have some tools to help them. Our shipping is free to their home or work, and like any pharmacy, our team reviews our customers’ benefits plans to help them understand their co-pay requirements and coverage. If we get a prescription for a medication that is expensive, we can recommend a therapeutic alternative that can get the job done for a lower cost, and we can contact the physician to sign off on the change. In some provinces we automatically substitute the generic medication for a more expensive brand name, and that reduces plan sponsor costs as well as patient costs. We also look for subsidies that might be offered by the pharmaceutical manufacturers. As pharmacists, we do what we can to make sure people can afford their medications.
Going back to adherence, what can you do help people who are confused or forgetful about their medications?
We have a free service called MedPack where we pre-package the patient’s doses into individual little bags with the day and the time printed right on them. This makes it easier to remember what to take and when and to double check whether you actually took it. And it’s not just for seniors, we’re seeing students, busy families and travellers using MedPack to keep things simple.
Are virtual pharmacies replacing regular drug stores, like the one where you got your start?
I believe that we complement one another. People still need neighbourhood pharmacies for important things like vaccinations or for when you need medication right away. For example, if you’ve just come from the dentist and need pain medication, you don’t want to wait for that.
What changes do you see to TELUS Health Virtual Pharmacy in coming years?
I’m excited about being able to offer more specialized consults. Some pharmacists have special interests and training in areas such as smoking cessation or diabetes management and it would be great to be able to assign our patients to someone who can provide really deep expertise and support.
One last question. What is the best part of your day?
Hands down it’s when I know I’ve helped a patient. When you have someone in a consultation who is thanking you for listening and giving them the care they needed it’s the best feeling. It’s why I got into this business and it’s why I come in every day 20 years later.
Disclaimer: This profile is for information purposes only and is not in any way a recommendation or endorsement by physicians.