May 19, 2020

COVID-19 at work: Alumnus David Lai talks about life behind the pharmacy counter

Airdrie pharmacist has a frontline view of the pandemic and its impact on global supply chains and prescription regulations

In our series, Careers in Motion, we bring you interviews with alumni who are innovators, thought leaders and experts in their field. This month, we spoke with pharmacist David Lai, BSc'13, about what’s shifted in his practice since COVID-19 struck. Pharmacies are considered an essential service. You’ll still find Lai dispensing drugs at the Safeway Pharmacy in Airdrie — but now from behind a plexiglas barrier, protected by a disposable mask and gloves. People panic-buying, a newly imposed 30-day prescription limit, no international travel for the foreseeable future (Lai’s practice also offers travel consultation) — all these issues are impacting the sector, says Lai.

David Lai

David Lai, BSc’13

What do you most love about your job?

The variety between dispensary and clinical work, and the privilege to help others. I suppose my least-favourite area would be today’s drug shortages.

Speaking of shortages, can you explain how the drug-supply chain impacts all of us?

Our supply chain is a global one, so disruptions in one part of the world cause a ripple throughout the chain. Here’s an example: consider the patients who are stable on a certain medication, but now find themselves unable to continue with their particular medication due to a drug-supply shortage or interruption. These days, these shortages are frequent, which is disheartening and trying for everyone.

How effective has the 30-day rule been?

Before the supply rule was instituted, we had a lot of prescription-refill requests for inhalers. At the moment, even with the 30-day-supply rule, there are still drug shortages and pharmacies are being rationed medications from their suppliers.

How many customers do you serve in a day?

We gauge how busy we are with prescription counts, as some patients will need more prescriptions than others. We are a relatively busy pharmacy, so our pharmacy team fills several hundred prescriptions a day. 

How has your job changed since COVID-19 entered our lives?

With the guidance against non-essential travel, folks are not seeking out pre-travel health consultations at the moment. Specific to Alberta, with dentistry and optometry services restricted to essential activities, I have noticed an uptick in patients calling in or coming to the pharmacy to seek out help for dental and eye infections in the interim.

What new regulations have pharmacists seen since the pandemic was declared?

The 30-day refill is perhaps the most well known of these new regulations. Health Canada has relaxed the transfer of controlled and targeted drugs as well, so that has helped patients. Previously, if you filled such medications, you often could not transfer them to a different pharmacy.

How vulnerable are pharmacists to contracting COVID-19?

It depends on whether you work in an institutional setting or out in the community. Even though we wear PPEs [personal protective equipment] during clinical appointments, we still serve patients who may need to receive medications by injection, so physical distancing is not always possible. I do wonder, at times, whether I am as healthy as I think I am.

Of all your patients, what group is most vulnerable to COVID-19?

What comes to my mind are folks with an obesity risk factor, current smokers, the elderly and immunosuppressed patients; they would all be at a higher risk for complications. Our pharmacy, and perhaps any pharmacy in Alberta, would see a good mix of such patients with these risk factors.

What are some of the top lessons that you learned at UCalgary that have stayed with you?

Be involved with your community at every stage of your life! It could be through volunteering or trying out that new activity you have been thinking about. It’ll be fun, you’ll meet new people and learn new skills. 

What did a typical day look like before the pandemic, and what does it look like now?

Before the pandemic, my typical day would involve assessing prescriptions for drug-therapy indication, appropriateness, effectiveness and safety before dispensing. I would also have travel-consultation appointments slated throughout the week. With the pandemic, there are no more travel consultations. My dispensary responsibilities are still present, but I have noticed an increase in patients requesting pharmacist-prescription extensions.

What are some of the changes or practices you think we’ll see in the future?

I think the adaptation of technology/automation into the practice of pharmacy and within the greater health-care realm will be something we’ll see more in the future. In the future, I think we may see pharmacogenomics — a tailored drug regimen based on one’s genome. AI [artificial intelligence] would also help in this realm, as well.

Do you have any career advice for recent grads or someone thinking of entering pharmacology?

Pharmacy is a wonderful career! After I completed my BSc at the U of C, I went to the U of A for another four years to become a registered pharmacist. If anyone is considering entering the field, they should ask their neighbourhood pharmacist for a shadowing opportunity. Pharmacy is a professional program, so there are required prerequisite courses, interviews and possibly entrance exams that one has to take, depending on the pharmacy school they want to enter. To help me prepare, I took several courses in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and analytical chemistry in my undergrad degree at the U of C. Being empathetic and caring will carry you through the tough times in this career.