April 9, 2015 |

Unsung heroes in neighborhoods around the world

This group of global health workers is often overlooked, even though they're a primary point of health care for many.
Two men talk to a woman ina
Some people do not go to clinics because the fee is high and they are located far from home. Photo: PATH/Ngo Thi Than Thuy.

When we think of health workers, we often envision physicians or nurses in clinics and hospitals, or community health workers who provide primary health care services to their neighbors. And while these providers, so intrinsic to our traditional view of health care, play essential roles, the private-sector pharmacist and druggist are very often the first and sometimes only point of contact with the health care system for many people—particularly in low- and lower middle-income countries (LMIC).

The third annual World Health Worker Week provides us an opportunity to stand back, recognize, support, and raise awareness of the important role health workers play everywhere.

And yet, in an overlooked sector, pharmacists and druggists may be the least recognized providers of all, even though people rely on them every day.

  • Consumers value the accessibility, convenience, and potential for cost savings and, in some cases, the anonymity of pharmacies and drug shops.
  • People appreciate that needed medicines often are in stock and waiting times are short.
  • In many cases, commercial pharmacists and druggists already are administering key health services and distributing products to improve the health of women, children, and families—such as contraceptives for family planning or oral rehydration solution to prevent child deaths from diarrhea.
A person wearing a helmet talks to a woman behind a counter.
In some countries, youth are far more likely to visit a pharmacy for services than they are to visit a clinic. Photo: PATH/Jolene Beitz.

Pharmacists and their staff, or drug shop workers, have enormous reach into communities, but they are regularly excluded from public health strategies.

Public health systems and programs will be stronger and more communities will thrive if we recognize the value of pharmacists and druggists and bolster their ability to meet the health care needs of the people they serve.

Quotes from people who use pharmacies.

Repeatedly, research has found that properly trained and supported pharmacists and druggists with an expanded scope of practice can provide quality services including:

  • Health education.
  • Diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, malaria, and diarrhea.
  • Referral for HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

The role pharmacists and druggists can play in the management of noncommunicable diseases in lower middle-income countries will continue to be substantial. Their dedication is crucial to the well-being, success, and stability of individuals, families, communities, and nations.

As we work toward universal health care and undertake efforts to strengthen the health workforce worldwide, this group of providers is too important to forget. Including them in policy dialogue or advocacy for human resources for health—and strengthening their capacity—will help us achieve stronger health systems that can be sustained by communities.

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  • Portrait of a smiling Jane Hutchings.
    Jane Hutchings was formerly the director of the Reproductive Health Program at PATH.