Beginning her pharmacy career as a medicines counter assistant at the tender age of 16, Oonagh Mitchell has worked her way up the ranks at Well pharmacy in Roehampton. Twelve years on, Oonagh is now an accuracy checking technician and stop smoking advisor and her hard work and expertise have seen her advising the likes of TV presenter Jeremy Kyle as part of a national campaign for Public Health England (PHE) to encourage people to stop smoking.
Committed to developing her knowledge, once Oonagh joined the pharmacy she undertook as much training as possible and as such, soon worked her way up to accuracy checking technician.
Keen to help others – including her pharmacist – in every way she could, Oonagh also trained as a stop smoking advisor six years ago. “At the time, it was just the pharmacist that had the stop smoking training, so obviously she was under a lot of pressure, so I enquired if I would be able to do it,” says Oonagh.
While some customers are aware of the service, the pharmacy team makes sure to spread the message far and wide. Oonagh say: “If they [the staff on the counter] notice people buying patches or looking at the stuff, then they tell me or my colleague and we go and speak to them and advise them.”
As a stop smoking expert, Oonagh is passionate about providing essential, personalised support. “Everyone is so different and everyone has different reasons for wanting to quit so it’s really good to speak to people and get to know them and find out what they’re doing it for. So definitely, face-to-face support is important,” she says.
During the 12-week stop smoking course the pharmacy offers, Oonagh tailors the time and advice that she dedicates to patients. “It just really depends on that person. Some people come in and they’re doing really well so it’s literally five or 10 minutes. Every week we check their carbon monoxide level – we’ve got a carbon monoxide monitor – and we just do that to see how they’re getting on,” she says. “But other people might come along and need a bit more support or advice that week, so that can take a bit longer. Most people see through the 12 weeks, which is really good. It’s good to know there’s an end goal.”
Offering personalised combinations of different nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products and face-to-face support has also been proven to give the best chance of quit success.
During her six years providing the stop smoking service, Oonagh has witnessed an increased variety of NRT products, which makes it easier for people to find a product or combination of products that best suits them. “When I first started doing it there was literally just patches and gum pretty much, but now you’ve got the nasal sprays, the mouth sprays, the lozenges,” explains Oonagh, and she says that it’s great that the manufacturers are always changing and updating their offering depending on the needs of customers.
Always focused on the individual customer, Oonagh recognises that the stop smoking programme isn’t for everyone, but she still provides as much advice and support as she can. She says: “Sometimes the service isn’t suitable for everyone, because of their work commitments or hours, but we can still try and advise them on what to buy.”
Smokers are twice as likely to relapse when they opt for willpower alone, rather than using NRT, face-to-face support or a combination of the two. “We don’t recommend going ‘cold turkey’,” says Oonagh. “Obviously nicotine is so addictive. A lot of people think ‘I’ll just stop’ but it doesn’t actually work for most people.”
Instead, Oonagh encourages pharmacy teams to recommend the stop smoking service to customers by telling them: “There is support out there, just don’t go and do it on your own, you’ve got people out there who can help and advise you.”
This autumn, Oonagh has been a key part of Public Health England (PHE)’s Stoptober campaign. Approached by PHE in September to take part, Oonagh saw it as a great opportunity to get her stop smoking messages out to people beyond the walls of her pharmacy and local community.
She was involved in media interviews and videos to support the Stoptober campaign and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jeremy Kyle. In an interview with the ex-smoker and TV presenter, Oonagh gave expert information and advice on using a combination of quitting techniques, the importance of face-to-face support and promoting the new Stoptober personal quit plan resource (see panel).
Despite a few nerves, Oonagh really enjoyed the experience, commenting that the production team and Jeremy himself were “so nice and friendly and made me feel really comfortable” and now that a few of her patients have seen her Stoptober video, she says “everyone was really positive about it”.
Oonagh hopes the campaign’s national media presence combined with Jeremy’s celebrity status will help boost awareness and encourage more people to stop smoking. “Success stories are always really good because people think ‘well if he can do it, I can do it’,” says Oonagh.
With her passion for helping people taking her to the national stage, Oonagh shows how valuable the stop smoking initiative can be and who knows what the future might hold.
The stop smoking service is certainly a much-loved part of Oonagh’s job and this remains her focus. She says: “You see how happy they [the patients] are and that sense of achievement. It’s just such a good feeling to know that you’ve helped someone to feel that way.”
If the opportunity arose to continue to work with PHE, Oonagh says she’d be more than happy to get involved. “It was a good experience and I’d like to help more people and get the word out there, so if there was anything else I could do I’d definitely be interested.”
Jeremy Kyle has joined forces with Public Health England (PHE) this Stoptober to call on smokers
to join him in the quest to quit smoking for good.
Having recently quit after more than 35 years as a smoker, Jeremy is supporting Stoptober through video campaigns with leading GP Sarah Jarvis and stop smoking expert Oonagh Mitchell,
to gauge the benefits of quitting and the different strategies to quit.
The aim of Stoptober is to make the quitting process as simple as possible with an updated app offering daily tips, practical support, advice, motivation and encouragement. “It’s the first year they’ve [PHE] got the personal quit plan on the website. If you go onto the website, then it asks you three questions. And then based on how you’ve answered those questions, it can recommend something for you,” says Oonagh. “That’s definitely something they’re doing differently this year which I think is really good, because it does understand that everybody is different.”
Speaking to PHE, Jeremy said: “I never thought I’d sit in front of you and say that I’ve been smoke free for four months now. But there is so much support out there. You can quit too.”
You see how happy they are, that sense of achievement, and it’s just such a good feeling to know that you’ve helped someone to feel that way