The most obvious observation we can make on this topic concerns the physical proximity of the pharmacy; we are “on the street” so the service is easily accessible. It’s no small thing. Thanks to this aspect the pharmacy is viewed as a potential provider of proximity-based services and an access point to the National Healthcare Service. It covers a range of services, from measuring blood pressure to general check-ups, and today, thanks to the collaboration with the National Healthcare Service, it is finally able to offer Covid tests and vaccinations. Above all pharmacists are expected to be all-round experts and to gain proximity to any need, from reading medical charts to the suitability of pharmaceutical treatments, from looking after a cold to how to store jams. Second only to the Internet, we represent the first interface with the world of science and a potential connection to other experts.
You then have the notion of proximity in terms of humanity- listening and the availability of time and space.
Pharmacists do not have the same authority as doctors so they position themselves on the side of patient (instead of above them) and follow- rather than decide- a treatment route with them. They often- and embarrassingly so- play the role of mediator and have to delicately balance this while respecting the other professionals and the patients themselves. Because they play a marginal role in the provision of treatments it’s common for them to receive feedback on what might not have worked with these. We can help to take down the barriers that people sometimes experience in the communication between patients and healthcare workers. Alternatively we can cover an intermediate space where we help to adapt a verdict (a diagnosis or a therapy) into a new daily routine, with small attentions aimed at facilitating the change in lifestyle that patients are often expected to undertake but are rarely supported on.
Spreading information at a basic level
This recalls the endless topic of the words dedicated to communication. A way I try to apply proximity in everyday life, both at work and online, is what I call spreading information at a basic level. It’s the ability to translate any topic related to health or disease into very simple words and ways of thinking about them so that they become more concrete. It is about learning to cut out unnecessary jargon, the words we use to make us look like experts so that we can defend ourselves from the potential accusation of being imprecise or inaccurate, which no one will actually ever make. Gaining proximity to people requires us to put all that aside.
We get closer to the notion of proximity when we get to a more emotional dimension and remove our armour so that we can enter a greater state of empathy. Proximity here is intended as being able to get so close that you can feel and identify your comfort zones and the boundaries of closeness. Our limitation often lies in being unable to stay with the discomfort and suffering of others. This makes us talk more than we listen.
My wife is a doula- a person whose job is to be close to women and families during, before and after childbirth- so I understand what real proximity and true closeness really look like. You achieve true proximity when you enter someone’s life without wanting to change it and when you provide support for that life even though it’s completely different than yours. It is a way of meeting others and accepting who they are, their values and wishes, even when these might be very different to yours. In that case proximity enables you to get out of that right-and-wrong mindset and accept that what others perceive as right and wrong is as important. It is a more vivacious way of experiencing needs than focusing on a simple thought or your own opinions and if you welcome this notion you can truly provide what’s needed. What makes a big difference might even be something really small like saying the right words.
Our limitation often lies in being unable to stay with the discomfort and suffering of others. This makes us talk more than we listen.
What is proximity for?
Who needs proximity then? Do us experts need it? Do we really view our job as lifelong learning and development? In that case everyone needs proximity as a learning space. I will now report a story I stole from a friend and life teacher (who works as an accountant), Franco Falorni.
While going around residential facilities for people with severe mental or physical disabilities (those he calls precious brothers) he was wondering whether these people could truly give us something beside the catholic principle that such notion stems from.
He met a woman who suffered a stroke the day after her wedding. She’d been living in one of these homes for disabled people that are fully reliant on care, on a wheelchair and without any physical or relational autonomy, for over twenty years. He felt that in that case one could only provide assistance and that proximity with such a person could not be anything else other than a good action.
He talked with the support worker that was accompanying the woman on her wheelchair- she was a simple person. She started to say to the woman on the wheelchair, with an embarrassing insistence and reiteration, “Come on Maria! Say hi to the President!” Franco was just about to escape to avoid feeling more awkward (obviously he thought he was making the poor woman uncomfortable) when the carer, unable to spot any sign of life in that person, said to her, “Maria! You’re from Lucca. Did you know that the President here is from Pisa?” Everyone knows about the ancient- and still ongoing- rivalry between the cities of Lucca and Pisa. The woman, who was completely unable to make any facial expression or move her eyes or body fully, attempted a small movement… she raised her middle finger slightly…
Franco had an epiphany in that moment. Those people, even the ones with the worst conditions, are not unable to communicate. We are the ones who are unable to perceive and listen.
That’s something that proximity can help with: developing our ability to listen.
Franco built a true listening “gym” based on this idea: they offer seminars/stays in their facilities where professionals, high school or university students, judges, pharmacists, accountants, professors- anyone who wishes to be there- can train their listening skills through guided tours or accompanied by the staff. He called this development experience “Gabriele’s gym”, in memory of a severely disabled boy that recently passed away (www.lapalestradigabriele.it).
Proximity takes on another meaning here: it’s something we need to develop and to avoid fading away as people.