The community pharmacy-based approach to the distribution and sale of prevention face masks to citizens for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a new and innovative engagement of pharmacists in contributing to the efficient, reliable, equitable, and cost-effective implementation of public health promotion and protection initiatives by the government. By providing the increased electronic tracking and reporting of face mask sales in the various communities across the nation, community pharmacies provide the NHI with an informed and reliable mechanism for mitigating chaotic incidents in the distribution, selling, and purchasing of masks across the country . This approach provides a quick way of securing and reporting data to be used for the government’s planning and decisions on the production and distribution of face masks to meet the underlying objective of safeguarding equal access to pandemic prevention resources by all citizens across the nation. In particular, this approach is valuable for enhancing cost-savings by the NHI, as it eliminates the arbitrary setting of mask prices by vendors in the marketplace.
The “Mask Real-Name System 2.0” program is based on the revision of the tax filing software of the Ministry of Finance. It features a stable system and immediate online operation. However, this system needs to be equipped with a card reader to read the health insurance card and it can only operate on a computer, which is inconvenient for mobile phone users and it cannot, therefore, be popularized among the public. To make it accessible for all people, the government immediately introduced the mobile phone APP, in order to connect with the National Health Insurance system.
To avoid long night-queues to purchase masks, the “Mask Real-Name System 2.0” has changed the “queuing system” into a “registration system”, with the aim of dispersing people, reducing the pressure load on the computer system, and preventing people from queuing up to buy masks.
The Taiwanese government has been engaged in multiple steps from mask exports, to production, pricing to rationing. Such engagement in the Real-Name system has brought many benefits. The price of masks is stable and people can obtain masks at a lower price than in other countries, thus avoiding the epidemic prevention gap caused by the inequality between the wealthy and the poor. In addition, the government’s capital and manpower, such as the army’s support for mask production, have also been key in increasing the mask production capacity. Therefore, the implementation of the Real-Name system allows people to acquire a certain number of masks on a regular basis, which effectively reduces the crowds.
Some of the shortcomings and difficulties faced by the selling of Real-Name masks in community pharmacies are as follows: (1) Community pharmacies need to pack and sell the masks. Each pharmacy needs to handle an average of 2000 masks per day. In addition to the daily pharmacy sales, the community pharmacies are required to employ more people; (2) In some community pharmacies, one person is responsible for the whole pharmacy business, and some pharmacists are either in a poor physical condition, pregnant, or unable to provide services for long periods of time, due to family factors, or age; (3) the Taiwanese government has extended the Mask Real-Name System till the end of December 2020. Pharmacists in community pharmacies are generally exhausted, both physically and mentally, because of irrational people who come to buy masks, so they often suffer abuse and their personal safety is threatened.
However, the planned economical mode of the government will definitely stifle the mechanisms and advantages of the free market. Under the government pricing control, people can obtain masks at cheaper prices. In addition, a fixed quota seems to be equal for everyone, and it does not reflect the differences in personal and family needs. For example, medical personnel or business sales personnel actually do need a different number of masks every week. It is not feasible to adjust the rations, so as to quantify the differences in lifestyles. Moreover, it may also lead to ethnic opposition, occupational discrimination, and other related issues.
Furthermore, given that the program is integrated with the NHI database, and hence, the electronic health and medical records of patients across the nation, it allows pharmacists in community pharmacies to assist in the tracking and filling of signed prescriptions for local patients with chronic diseases. In particular, it promises to improve the coordination of supplies for critical medicines and related pharmaceuticals to community pharmacies, which is critical for reducing the number of people going to a hospital for non-critical or avoidable healthcare concerns. Moreover, given their professional knowledge and skills, pharmacists serving in community pharmacies can also provide professional drug consultation services to locals . All of this has the ultimate value of helping to reduce the number of people having to visit hospitals across the country, which, in turn, reduces the undue spread of COVID-19, by mitigating unnecessary travel and overcrowding in hospitals. This is a critical measure for safeguarding the sustainability of the national health system in the successful fight against pandemics.