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Brian Poon and Aileen Li of UHN's Altum Health clinic in Toronto were among a group of UHN pharmacists who redeployed during the Omicron Wave. (Photo: UHN)

Dr. Kevin Smith, President & CEO of UHN, wrote in an update to staff on Jan. 24 that Pfizer's anti-viral COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid could be a "game-changer in reducing hospitalizations." Days earlier, Health Canada approved the drug for adults over 18 who are at higher risk of severe COVID-19. If taken within five days of the onset of symptoms, it significantly reduces risk of hospitalization and death.

Widely available vaccine and Paxlovid together meant availability of treatment was no longer the main issue facing care teams. People to provide treatment was.

Omicron's highly infectious nature led to mass absences at UHN, including pharmacists who would be essential in the safe and effective use of Paxlovid in patient care.

Redeployment worked before, and the time came to do it again.

Enter Aileen Li and Brian Poon, full-time pharmacists at UHN's Altum Health clinic in Toronto. They stepped up to answer the call, despite uncertainty if their expertise was in need.

After Paxlovid's approval, it became clear. As pharmacists, they could assess patient medication history, recommend suitable dose adjustments and advise as to how Paxlovid coexists with other medications.

The duo were not the only pharmacists redeployed at UHN as infectious activity peaked.

"Within our department, we had an increased need for support and had pharmacists redeployed from other areas to come in and support patient care," Amita Woods, Pharmacy Clinical Manager at UHN, says of the situation in the early weeks of 2022. "The redeployed staff helped to support increased patient volumes, staff absences, and the need for complex medications."

Amita's reflections on January remain relevant in March, which is Pharmacy Appreciation Month in Canada. The occasion is a chance to show gratitude for the 250 pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and support staff at UHN.

During the Omicron Wave, the pharmacy team's ability to pivot care from one pathway to another offers testimony to their collective versatility. Switching care routines to different patient populations was a task that also required an extra level of dedication.

Aileen and Brian were ready to meet the challenge.

Not part of the routine

The Altum pair redeployed to UHN's Connected COVID Care Clinic, a pathway dedicated to caring for patients with COVID-19 infection. The clinic had one major difference from the type of patients they were used to seeing in their normal roles.

"Altum clients tend to have less chronic health concerns," says Brian. "Patients at the COVID clinic are higher risk with more complications.

"The area of expertise has shifted dramatically which required a higher gear of learning and preparedness."

Pharmacists determine appropriateness and flag interactions of medications based on patient health function. Adapting the practice to a more fragile patient population was a big shift. In other areas, however, familiarity reigned.

"We interacted with so many people, spread out across programs," says Aileen, describing the experience like being on tour. "One common thing across UHN is that passion for patient care is top of mind for everyone.

"No matter where you go you'll meet great people putting the needs of the patient first."

Rewarding experience

Staffing shortage is never ideal. Aileen and Brian, however, choose to see the upside of their shared experience.

"Working in healthcare, you encounter a lot of challenges," says Brian. "It's not an easy career, but being able to step up and be aligned with the common goal of providing the best patient care possible to those at most risk is rewarding."

Aileen echoes that sentiment.

"It's the main goal of healthcare," she says. "I know it may not be for everyone, but being able to work alongside experts who are all aligned as a team is special.

"It makes all the difference."

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