An insight into the work of Alitam member Karen O’Brien

Championing the pivotal role pharmacists play in healthcare is Karen O’Brien who, since 1996, has built 5 South Devon pharmacies from scratch, and today boasts the only independent pharmacies in the region. An early advocate of pharmacists’ wide clinical expertise, and a vital force in her pharmacies’ communities, Karen consistently shows what can be done with the courage and conviction to change the current paradigm in healthcare.

Leading the way for pharmacy

Remarkable as it now seems, not long ago pharmacies within GP surgeries didn’t exist. Karen O’Brien changed that, pioneering the service in South Devon and significantly easing the burden on GPs and other health services as she did so. “The key is that we have access to patient records,” explains Karen, “so we have that in-depth knowledge to really help patients. We have a private consultation room, for confidential discussions, and we have the clinical expertise – together with a close relationship of trust with patients. Very often there’s no need to refer to the GP. It’s a natural role for us to play in our communities and I want to see this happening much more.”

‘A vital link in the chain’

Beyond this, 5 years’ ago Karen attained her licence to work as an Independent Prescriber, radically altering her experience of just how much a community pharmacist can do. “Not only can I now diagnose conditions, but I also help people on their long and difficult journeys with things like chronic pain, or childhood eczema. I prescribe medicines directly, follow up with patients, all the while maintaining a dialogue with their GP where necessary. When I began it was as if a light went on. All this time we’ve had patients trying to get appointments with GPs, often self-diagnosing and self-medicating wrongly. When pharmacists have been here all along, able to bridge the gap between the two. This is where the future for pharmacy lies. Bridging all the other gaps – and there are many – between patient and healthcare provider.”

Independent brilliance meets group strength

As an Alitam member, Karen relishes the opportunities she can now exploit. “I’ve operated in a silo for 30 years and, although I was forging ahead with many initiatives, there is so much you can’t do on your own. We can take on the competition properly now; we’ve already seen online pharmacies prove themselves unequal to the task during the pandemic. Without any patient knowledge or local connections, they are simply a service reliant on the vagaries of the Royal Mail. I’ve seen patients go without their medication for two weeks in this scenario. Whereas, with Alitam’s failsafe systems, we can provide the efficiency of online ordering with our very real knowledge of patients’ needs. So if a patient orders the wrong item, or leaves it too late, I can step in and make things happen. The human connection is still there.”

But that’s not all. “I was struck from the beginning by Alitam’s very special combination of local presence and group strength. I can now develop the marketing materials I need, implement technological innovations to save me and my customers time – and greatly reduce overheads through shared resources. All while deepening my individual bond with the communities I serve.”

The cornerstone of community health

Perhaps most significantly, Karen has her eye on those aforementioned gaps in the chain of healthcare provision. “Pharmacists should routinely be running more clinics which rely on simple testing and monitoring of conditions, for Chronic Hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes, for example. This is the future of pharmacy, and it benefits GPs and patients, while positioning us as the cornerstone of community health.”

Says Alitam Founder, Feisal Nahaboo, “Karen’s intelligence and vision have found their true home in Alitam. Her pharmacies have thrived where so many others have failed to even survive, and that’s a testament to her professional skill, entrepreneurial spirit and acute awareness of the failings of the current healthcare model. She is already working across the board to share her learnings, benefit from the cumulative wisdom of the superlative management team, and see her stores – and the pharmacy sector as a whole – ascend to a position of enormous strength in society.”