With loneliness and social isolation identified as a significant burden to health and wellbeing, those affected at least have PALS on their side. The Pharmacy Addressing Loneliness and Social-isolation group is on a mission to aid the industry in its efforts to halt this rising burden. PALS founder Jenny Kirschner discusses issues around loneliness, noting the key contribution pharmacy assistants can provide in dealing with those they perceive to be perhaps lonely or socially isolated .
Tell us about your role and why PALS was founded. I’m a pharmacist and the founder of PALS. My interest in loneliness stemmed from my personal experiences of loneliness, and PALS was founded to raise awareness and educate the pharmacy community about the significant health impacts of loneliness.
We all know the patients who come into the pharmacy just for that extra little chat! Pharmacy staff are among the most trusted health professionals. Community pharmacy is among the most frequently accessed primary healthcare networks. As a result of this trust, relationship and accessibility, pharmacy staff are in a good position to identify lonely and socially isolated older people. My belief is that if pharmacy staff appreciate the health impacts of loneliness, then they’ll feel compelled to act on the loneliness that they can often identify in their patients.
What are the mission and values of PALS?
PALS is the first international pharmacy initiative committed to raising awareness and addressing loneliness and social isolation to improve the health of patients and society. The 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 and globally.
How does loneliness affect an individual’s mental and emotional wellbeing?
Loneliness is a significant predictor of a range of mental health symptoms and disorders, including depression, social anxiety and poorer psychological wellbeing. For example, loneliness increases the likelihood of experiencing depression by 15.2 per cent. However, while loneliness is a risk factor for poor mental health, it’s a distinct phenomenon requiring different strategies.
Loneliness also predicts increased suicidality. Suicide Prevention Australia found international evidence that indicates links between loneliness, self-harm and suicide. Loneliness is among the most significant risk factors identified by Suicide Prevention Australia’s ‘State of the Nation in Suicide Prevention 2022’ report.
Are there documented physical health consequences associated with prolonged loneliness?
Loneliness is one of the most pressing issues of our time. It’s a well documented risk factor for various physical and mental health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, dementia and even death. Loneliness also has a relationship with increased healthcare usage and hospitalisations.
Why is it important to build community awareness surrounding the impacts of loneliness within our communities?
It’s important to recognise that loneliness can impact all ages and not just the elderly. In the case of community pharmacy, however, it’s often the elderly patients we see on a regular basis. For elderly patients who live alone and are socially isolated, the community pharmacy staff may be their only regular face-to-face contact.
If we can increase community awareness of the impacts of loneliness, this will help to reduce the stigma of loneliness that often prevents people from seeking the help that they need. If we reduce the stigma, we can create emotionally safe spaces in the pharmacy where people can talk about their experiences. Pharmacy staff can then empower patients to act towards greater social health, reducing their loneliness – which not only improves quality of life but can also result in greater health outcomes.
How do ‘social prescribing’ principles apply to loneliness and how can they be effectively implemented in the pharmacy environment?
Social prescribing is gaining popularity globally with an opportunity for pharmacy involvement. Social prescribing is recognised as ‘a means for trusted individuals in clinical and community settings to identify that a person has non-medical, health-related social needs and to subsequently connect them to non-clinical supports and services within the community by co-producing a social prescription – a non-medical prescription, to improve health and wellbeing and to strengthen community connections’.
An example of this is encouraging a patient to volunteer, join a local sports club, or take a dance class. Pharmacy staff could create a list of their community’s existing resources and local social activities. This way, pharmacy staff can ‘prescribe’ local activities to patients, promoting connectedness.
What role do you see for PALS in addressing loneliness in the future?
PALS is soon to launch a world-first pharmacy training program on loneliness, with the aim of empowering pharmacy staff with the knowledge and skills to identify patients at risk of loneliness, to then be able to refer them into programs. Among others, the pharmacy training program on loneliness includes an exclusive interview with Professor Daniel Russell, who developed the globally utilised validated loneliness screening tool, the UCLA Loneliness Scale. This screening tool could be used by staff in community pharmacy.
How can the pharmacy profession actively contribute to alleviating loneliness and combating social isolation?
My call to action is for all pharmacy staff to learn about the risk factors for loneliness. Pharmacy staff can also talk about loneliness more openly to help reduce any stigma, include social health recommendations as part of lifestyle counselling and medication adherence support, and follow up and monitor individuals at risk of loneliness.
What services does PALS offer?
Currently, PALS offers a training program on loneliness for both pharmacists and pharmacy assistants.
How can pharmacists and pharmacy assistants get involved and support the work that you do?
Follow PALS on LinkedIn and ‘like’ and ‘share’ the content to help raise awareness.
- Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org with stories about how you’re helping patients in your pharmacy address their loneliness.
- Register for the pharmacy assistant training program on loneliness.
- Talk to the wider team, including pharmacists, about what you’ve learnt, and encourage them to learn about loneliness, too.
To learn more about PALS: palsglobalnetwork.com/
Sign up for the training program on loneliness for pharmacists and pharmacy assistants: palsglobalnetwork.com/pharmacy-training/
This article was first featured in Retail Pharmacy Assistants October e-magazine