After reading this article, you should be able to:
- Assess patient knowledge gaps and tailor health education efforts to address specific needs;
- Explain complex medical concepts in an understandable manner, using visual aids and analogies as needed;
- Participate in interprofessional discussions to share expertise, exchange information and enhance patient-centred care;
- Foster patient autonomy by providing the knowledge and tools necessary for them to make informed decisions about their health.
Pharmacy team members are at the forefront of patient education, providing valuable information on drug interactions, side effects and medication management.
Providing effective health education can also reduce the risk of illness and advance public health and wellbeing in a variety of ways. Examples include:
- Delivering messaging and information to protect the community from health risks, such as infectious diseases, environmental health hazards and emergencies;
- Providing health promotion advice that supports individuals to improve their lifestyle (e.g. smoking cessation, sleep hygiene, diet and exercise);
- Teaching patients about their medicines and how to get the most from them;
- Providing health education for underserved communities that addresses health inequalities;
- Promoting access to, and signposting patients to, the full range of health services available.
These important areas of public health can also be reinforced by public health assessment, workforce development and promoting evidence through research. This article outlines the significance of educating the public on health-related matters and highlights the indispensable role of the pharmacy team in empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their wellbeing.
Identifying opportunities for health education
Health education should be integrated into routine practice; there is no limit to the number and range of potential opportunities to improve the public’s understanding of health and illness. Health education work takes a variety of forms, including large-scale programmes delivered nationally or internationally, local or regional campaigns designed to meet specific objectives and ‘very brief interventions’ (VBIs) made as part of daily practice. NHS England’s ‘Making every contact count’ approach is a good example of a coordinated approach to VBIs that utilises the millions of day-to-day interactions that organisations and healthcare staff have with other people to encourage changes in behaviour that have a positive effect on the health and wellbeing of individuals, communities and populations.
Delivering health education
When engaging in health education, it is important for pharmacists to critically evaluate their beliefs, seek diverse perspectives and engage in open-minded discussions. Respectful dialogue, empathy, and understanding can bridge differences and foster a more inclusive society. Beliefs are a key component of public attitudes and may inform how individuals behave. Educating the public about health will, at times, include challenging patient beliefs and, to a certain extent, use influencing and persuasion to bring about change. Effective health education requires strong communication skills and an ability to use plain language, drawing on a mix of formats to achieve the desired outcome.
The following examples illustrate some of the ways pharmacists can engage in health education.
Providing medicine information
Pharmacists can ensure patients are well informed about their medications, foster adherence, and collaborate with healthcare teams to optimise patient outcomes. This comprehensive education not only benefits the individual but also contributes to better overall healthcare practices. Pharmacists can provide medicine information via scheduled appointments delivered through planned schemes (e.g. New Medicine Service in England, Chronic Medication Service in Scotland) or on an ad hoc basis. Pharmacists are able to draw on their expert knowledge of medicines to explain mechanisms of action in clear and simple language, instruct patients on correct doses, discuss formulations and demonstrate proper use of medical devices such as inhalers, insulin pens or syringes. Use of visual aids such as diagrams, videos or physical examples can help patients better understand their medicines leaving them with an improved sense of being empowering to manage their conditions.
Side effects and adherence
Pharmacists will routinely discuss potential side effects of medicines and their likelihood, providing advice on how to mitigate them where possible (e.g. taking with food) helping patients to better understand and evaluate the risks and benefits of their medicines. Important messages can be regularly reinforced, such as the need for consistent medication adherence for optimal outcomes, and adherence techniques can be shared to help patients to incorporate medications into daily routines.
Pharmacists can also educate and provide specialist advice for other healthcare team members about medications; for instance, helping to facilitate medicine optimisation, manage polypharmacy and support the reduction of unnecessary prescriptions.
Private, one-to-one consultations can address individual concerns and questions providing information tailored to the patient’s needs, allergies and medical history.
Empowerment through knowledge
Pharmacists should constantly seek to empower patients with the knowledge to actively participate in their healthcare decisions. Encourage individuals to ask questions and seek clarification on any doubts providing written material and reliable online resources for further reference.
Ensuring safe and effective use of medicines
Pharmacists can also educate patients about safe storage of medicines, potential drug interactions and advise them on when to seek further medical help. It may be possible to share strategies to prevent accidental overdose or missed doses and offer follow-up sessions to address ongoing questions and monitor progress.
Building health literacy
Health literacy can be defined as the capacity to access, understand, appraise and use health information to make informed decisions. Limited health literacy can be caused by issues such as low levels of education, lack of appropriate population targeting, and challenges in accessing and using modern communication technologies. There is significant variation in levels of health literacy within the population. Poor health literacy negatively impacts individual health outcomes and public health service use, leading to unhealthy behaviours and more complicated health conditions.
Pharmacists should consistently seek to build health literacy within their communities and patients. An example of how this can be done is provided in Box 1 below.
Box 1: The effect of a health literacy intervention
Parkview Regional Medical Centre in the United States introduced a pharmacist-led health literacy intervention programme focused on loop diuretics. Analysis of patient records showed reductions in hospitalisations and emergency department visits at both one month and three months after the intervention.
Educating the public about services
Expanding capacity and developing services closer to where patients live are strategic priorities for the NHS, but many patients are unaware of the full range of options available to them. Many pharmacists are now able to provide a range of health services to the public, including prescriptions to treat some minor ailments[7–11]. Utilising the skills of pharmacists in this way has many benefits for patients and the health system, but for schemes to reach their full potential, pharmacists must actively educate the public about their benefits and appropriate use[11–16].
Pharmacists are well positioned to raise public awareness about the availability of minor ailments services and other alternatives to general practice or accident and emergency departments. Strategies to achieve this include:
- Displaying educational materials in pharmacies;
- Engaging in personalised discussions with patients;
- Collaborating with local healthcare providers;
- Participating in NHS public health campaigns;
- Using social media and online platforms;
- Organising public workshops and talks;
- Working with schools and community groups.
Making all communications clear and straightforward is vital to ensuring patients understand the information[11–16]. By actively educating the public about services, pharmacists can enhance public awareness, promote its appropriate use and contribute to making primary healthcare services more effective, flexible and accessible.
Educating the public is crucial to reducing chronic disease in the community. Knowledge gaps and misconceptions continue to exist for conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which affect the public’s ability to access and benefit from suitable interventions and limit the capacity for informed decision making[18,19]. Pharmacist-led educational workshops, delivered both in person and remotely, have proven effective at improving public knowledge and attitudes about diabetes prevention and management[20,21]. Pharmacy hypertension programmes have also been shown to improve blood pressure control and disease knowledge among patients. Adequate cardiovascular health literacy has been associated with reduced risk scores and better outcomes[23,24].
Research has also shown that group-based educational programmes with peer support can improve disease management for chronic conditions, and the use of technology can reduce barriers and provide additional ways to deliver information and manage follow up[25,26]. Mobile applications can also be a powerful tool for facilitating positive habit formation and behaviour change.
Mental health and wellbeing
Mental health conditions are common, but UK services remain underfunded and have been further stretched following the COVID-19 pandemic[28,29]. Pharmacists can play a valuable educational role in supporting individuals and the public to access information and support that may be available in their area, including volunteer organisations and charities[30,31]. Research has shown that pharmacist involvement in mental health has positive effects leading to improved prescribing practices and increased patient satisfaction. Pharmacists in community settings are well-positioned to:
- Screen and identify individuals at risk of mental illness;
- Run promotional campaigns, such as leaflets and posters in the pharmacy and on social media with links to information on support;
- Provide education to patients and their carers about their mental health condition and medications;
- Explain mental health comorbidities and the importance of good physical health as a component of wellbeing and recovery[31,33].
However, studies have also highlighted a need for increased mental health training for pharmacists. In order to provide effective mental health education for patients, it may be necessary for pharmacists to access training opportunities and make mental health a focus of their continuing professional development. Many pharmacists also interact with individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts, so it is important to develop knowledge and competence in crisis first-aid and complex decision-making[35–41].
Promote antimicrobial stewardship
Pharmacists can play a crucial role in combating antimicrobial resistance, which is a growing global health concern. By implementing practical measures, pharmacists can optimise antimicrobial use, promote judicious prescribing and mitigate the development of drug-resistant pathogens. Practical measures include conducting regular reviews of antimicrobial therapy, promoting evidence-based prescribing practices and educating patients on the appropriate use of antibiotics.
Through effective antimicrobial stewardship programs, healthcare professionals can safeguard the efficacy of antimicrobial agents and preserve their effectiveness for future generations. By suggesting the use of pill organisers, pharmacists can empower patients to take charge of their medication regimen and improve overall treatment adherence. Remember that clear communication and ongoing support are essential to ensuring successful implementation.
Box 2: Practical tips for promoting antimicrobial stewardship
Choose appropriate pill organisers: Recommend organisers with compartments labelled for different days and times. Some organisers come with alarms or reminders, which can be particularly useful for patients with busy schedules or memory issues. During follow-up appointments, ask patients about their experience using pill organisers. Are they finding it helpful? Are there any challenges they are facing? This feedback can guide further support.
Monitor adherence: If possible, work with patients to monitor their adherence. This could involve tracking improvements in their condition, side effects, or any changes in their medication routine.
Educate on disposal: During discussions about medication usage, take a moment to educate patients on the importance of safely disposing of any leftover or expired medications. Explain that improper disposal can have environmental and public health implications. Advise patients against flushing unused medications down the toilet or throwing them in their general waste bin, as these methods can lead to water contamination or accidental ingestion by others.
Return to pharmacy: Encourage patients to return any unused medications, including antibiotics, to the pharmacy to ensure proper handling and disposal of medications.
Ongoing awareness: During follow-up appointments or check-ins, enquire about whether patients have any unused medications and remind them about the importance of proper disposal.
Medicines use has a large carbon footprint and pharmacists have a responsibility to educate patients and the public about the environmental impact and how this can be reduced. Pharmacists can play a vital role in promoting environmental sustainability through public education. Beyond their role in healthcare, pharmacists can educate the public about responsible medication disposal, emphasising the impact of improper disposal on ecosystems. They can raise awareness about medication wastage and encourage the use of refillable containers and electronic prescriptions to reduce paper usage. Pharmacists can also provide individualised guidance to support patients in choosing lower impact products and advise how they can minimise the environmental impact of medicines without weakening disease control. By imparting knowledge on these practices, pharmacists can empower individuals to make informed decisions that benefit both personal health and the planet, highlighting their crucial contribution to a greener and more sustainable future. Some examples of environmental health education opportunities are included below.
Promoting inhaler recycling
- Participate in local inhaler recycling programmes to properly dispose of used inhalers, preventing them from ending up in landfill and reducing their environmental impact;
- Check with local pharmacies about inhaler recycling options available in the community.
- Explain how improper medication disposal can harm the environment and water systems;
- Advise on safe disposal methods to prevent contamination;
- Promote medication take-back programmes and drop-off locations.
- Explain how unused or expired medications contribute to wastage and potential harm;
- Emphasise the importance of adhering to medication plans to avoid excess supply;
- Suggest smaller prescription quantities for new medications to prevent overstock;
- Solid medicines have a lower environmental impact than liquids and can be more convenient to use and easier to store, but many patients will be unaware of this. Explore opportunities for safe switching (e.g. IV or oral antimicrobials) if appropriate. It may also be possible to teach children how to swallow tablets rather than being reliant on liquid formulations.
- Recommend using refillable containers to reduce packaging waste;
- Encourage use of electronic prescriptions to minimise paper usage;
- Provide information on eco-friendly medication brands and sustainable packaging options.
- Offer workshops on medication management and environmental impact;
- Partner with community groups for awareness campaigns on sustainability;
- Use social media to share tips and information about green practices.
Leading by example
- Share your pharmacy’s sustainability initiatives, such as recycling programmes;
- Display signage in the pharmacy highlighting eco-friendly practices;
- Demonstrate your own commitment to environmental responsibility.
By actively engaging in these educational strategies, pharmacists can empower the public to make conscious choices that safeguard both personal health and the planet’s wellbeing.
Disaster and emergency management
Pharmacists can also contribute to community resilience by educating the public about how to prepare and respond to disasters and emergencies. For example, pharmacists can encourage patients to maintain an emergency supply of essential medications, such as a three-day or seven-day medication kit, and explain the value of creating a personal emergency plan, including a list of medications, contact information for healthcare providers, and instructions for medication administration during emergencies[47,48]. They can also advise vulnerable patients on how to prepare for periods of extreme heat and promote the importance of following local emergency management guidelines and staying informed about potential hazards.
Life-course vaccination is a critical aspect of preventive healthcare. Pharmacists can contribute to improved public health outcomes by actively promoting life-course vaccination.
Practical steps that pharmacists can take include:
- Emphasising the importance of vaccines at different stages of life. Encourage individuals to follow the recommended vaccination schedules, including childhood immunisations, booster jabs and vaccines for adolescents and adults;
- Educating the public about the benefits of vaccines in preventing infectious diseases and protecting against severe complications;
- Addressing vaccine hesitancy and common concerns and misconceptions regarding vaccine safety and efficacy;
- Providing accurate information on vaccine availability, locations for vaccination, and any specific recommendations for certain populations;
- Proactively engaging with marginalised groups and communities with low vaccination rates[51–53].
Pharmacy teams can provide valuable information on medications, protect community health, refine individual health, and help improve the efficiency of healthcare services. Pharmacists can educate the public about minor ailments, chronic diseases and mental health, and help to improve health literacy and the public’s knowledge of important, long-term health challenges, such as antimicrobial resistance. Through education, pharmacists are able to empower individuals to make more informed decisions about their health and wellbeing and benefit from the full range of services and support available.
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