Cherish the local chemist: our best defence against corporate epidemic

One of the essential mantras of our time is, ‘‘Don’t shout at the person in the call centre. It’s not their fault’’. Repeating it to yourself when you’ve been on hold for half an hour won’t dull the pain, but at least it might keep you civil when your call – the one that’s so important to them – is finally answered.
Sadly, we’ve now become completely acclimatised to the idea that personal, face-to-face service is just too much to ask. Maybe it was all that elevator music, piping into our brains through the phone, sedating us.
However it happened, we all now simply assume that we’ll be placed in a queue, put on hold, or directed to a confusing and unhelpful website, our queries going unanswered, our concerns ignored or mishandled.
Which might explain my disproportionate gratitude when I visited my local pharmacist, and he actually took time to discuss my prescription with me, at length. I was picking up some cream for an annoying skin affliction, and instead of simply handing it over while repeating the instructions I’d already been given by my dermatologist, the pharmacist asked me to wait a moment while he checked for side-effects and contraindications. ‘‘It’s a new ointment, so I’d like to make doubly sure it’s OK for you.’’

I told a friend about this, wondering whether the pharmacist’s caution meant that he was questioning my doctor’s judgment. Let’s hope he was, she replied. One of the main reasons pharmacists are there is to stop doctors killing you.
My friend may have been joking, but she had a point. I don’t think my doctor was in any way negligent, but dispensing powerful medications is a fine art, and it’s no bad thing to have that extra layer of care, provided by a person who compiles and dispenses medicine for a living.

Illustration: Robin Cowcher.

When we were heading overseas earlier this year, my pharmacist did exactly that, talking me through the medications the GP had prescribed for my son’s epic travel sickness, providing invaluable advice about the most effective way to use them. Advice that made a huge difference when we were tired and stressed, in the middle of a 24-hour journey. And, thanks to him, my son enjoyed his first vomit-free long-haul flight.
My mother has a similarly thoughtful pharmacist up the road from her, a person who still knows all her regular customers by name. The local butcher, the greengrocer and the news agency are all long gone from mum’s suburban shopping hub. But the pharmacy remains, still displaying an old, painted CHEMIST sign, like a final salute to all those once thriving neighbourhood shops.
My pharmacy is also in a local shopping strip, one that’s under huge pressure from high rents and competition from chains and supermarkets. Fast food shops have come and gone, the bakery recently closed, as did a quirky gift shop. So far, the pharmacy has held its ground, even though a large chemist chain recently opened an outlet just a few doors up. Impersonal, characterless, with security guards at the entrance, yet promising cheap vitamins, discount perfume and an astonishing array of products that no one needs.
You could argue that many small businesses have died because customers voted with their wallets. Yet we all know that there’s far more to it than changing consumer preferences.
Last week I heard a debate on the radio, concerning a push to remove government restrictions and regulations that help small chemists survive. Big chain pharmacy moguls and even convenience stores are arguing that independent pharmacies are being ‘‘propped up’’, and that the protections afforded these ‘‘unviable’’ businesses should end.
Listening to this, I found myself shouting at the radio. After all, the government is perfectly happy to prop up other private businesses, to the tune of billions of dollars. Coalmines and private schools spring immediately to mind. So why not my beloved local chemist?
I realise that energy and education policy are a big deal, with wide-ranging implications for our wider society. But small things can also make an important difference to our quality of life.
Perhaps most of us want a country where small, local businesses survive, even if they do need some help and support. Where service matters, and you can choose to visit a chemist who knows your name. But while the corporate sector throws its weight around, and industry lobbyists shape the debate, what chance is there that this preference will be heard? What chance that we’ll get to keep our local pharmacies, those final outposts of rebellion against impersonalisation? Long may they prosper!

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