Pharmacists addressing the loneliness epidemic
Social isolation and loneliness are considered significant health and wellbeing issues in Australia because of the impact they have on peoples’ lives. In surveys undertaken since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just over half (54 per cent) of respondents reported that they felt more lonely since the start of the pandemic1.
As a familiar and friendly face for those struggling with their mental health, pharmacists - as the most frequented health professional - play a critical role in the lives of many patients suffering from loneliness.
Throughout her 20 years as a community pharmacist, Monash University alumna Jenny Kirschner has played a dual role as medicine expert and patient confidant.
Daily interactions with people experiencing loneliness led Ms Kirschner to establish Pharmacy Addressing Loneliness and Social-isolation (PALS) - the first international network of individuals and organisations across the pharmacy industry working to address loneliness and social isolation.
Ms Kirschner, who has had her own personal experience with loneliness, believes that an integral part of pharmacist's education should involve loneliness and social isolation awareness and screening skills, to enable appropriate interventions to take place.
“Loneliness is not a new experience, but it is a signature concern of the COVID-19 pandemic which has helped to shine a spotlight on the topic. In their role on the healthcare frontline, pharmacists are uniquely placed to help create emotionally safe environments that promote connectedness,” said Ms Kirschner.
“PALS is striving to develop a road map for the pharmacy sector to address loneliness and social isolation. The road map will cover awareness and education for both pharmacy health professionals and the consumer, and will explore funding models to enable appropriate remuneration for loneliness and social isolation screenings, pilots, interventions and innovations in the pharmacy sector.”
One intervention Ms Kirschner commonly refers to is ‘social prescribing’ which is when healthcare professionals have the knowledge and resources to refer people to 'link workers' who can then connect them into social services or social groups in a bid to address the social determinants contributing to poor health and tackle the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.
A recent report recommended that social prescribing be incorporated into routine healthcare throughout Australia.
“Social prescribing can be a powerful early intervention tool - for some, all they need is for someone to help steer them in the right direction. It's an important initiative that pharmacists should be involved in to help reduce the loneliness epidemic - we just need to be properly equipped to do so.”
Many organisations are beginning to direct their energy to address loneliness in their communities, however Australia as a whole is falling behind on addressing loneliness.
For Ms Kirschner, the quest to incorporate loneliness and social isolation education into pharmacy practice continues. Through her connection to Monash’s Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences she is conducting presentations to staff and pharmacy students to help them improve their own health literacy in the science of loneliness.
Her longer-term goal is for an in-depth understanding of the health effects associated with loneliness and social isolation, and how to address them, to become an intrinsic part of pharmacy practice across Australia.