A community pharmacy in east London has begun a pilot to provide a refuge for people who have experienced sexual abuse following a spike in cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The scheme will offer testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), access to emergency hormonal contraception and referral to HIV services.
The pilot, which started on 27 July 2020, is the result of a collaboration between Shaheen Bhatia, a community pharmacist who owns P&S Chemist in Ilford, and the London Borough of Redbridge public health team. The pilot was developed in response to concerns over an increase in sexual abuse cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will aim to provide a “safe haven” for those who have experienced sexual abuse who have been turned away from dedicated sexual health services owing to reduced opening hours and closures over the lockdown period.
“[I] said I would be interested in helping — [at the pharmacy] we’re accessible, we’re open anyway, so if people need somewhere to go, we are here. Let’s see how we can make a pathway for those kinds of patients to be referred to us,” explained Bhatia.
“[The] public health [team] have been to the pharmacy, they have checked we have [the required] facilities — we have extra rooms, we have a toilet — and the personal protective equipment guidelines in place.”
Bhatia and the public health team liaised, virtually, with a range of organisations — from child support and safeguarding to community safety officers and others working closely with sexual abuse cases — to create a pathway for people to be referred to the pharmacy.
Bhatia explained the pharmacy was already providing sexual health services to some age groups under the patient group direction, “but sexual abuse doesn’t know age or gender, we need to extend the service and have it for all ages and all genders.”
She added that she hoped the scheme would be able to take referrals from a wide variety of sources, from shelters to the police.
“We don’t want to turn anyone away and I’m hoping once we start to get these people in we’ll generate enough data to be able to present [the pilot] locally and nationally,” she said.
“[I want to] open it out as much as possible so no one is restricted. We can create a safe haven.”
Helga Mangion, policy manager at the National Pharmacy Association, said the pilot was “a great example of an independent pharmacy being sensitive to the needs of their community and providing solutions in a highly responsive way.
“It shows that pharmacies are a community asset as well as a frontline health service.”
The pilot will run for six months before an initial review.