It’s time to stop undermining community pharmacy’s role as the third pillar of the NHS

The 2022 Pharmacy Advice Audit conducted by the PSNC in England is worthy of note. It found that more than 65 million consultations a year are currently being carried out by community pharmacy teams; an increase from the 2021 figure of 58 million.

This is an impressive figure which demonstrates the growing trust and value which people place in their local pharmacy. It sends a clear message to policy makers that the pharmacy network is one which requires and deserves further investment in order to meet patient demand.

However, it was disappointing that the tabloids chose to ignore the pharmacy first message and instead reported this as a “NHS in crisis” story; that people were turning to their local pharmacist simply because they could not get an appointment with their GP. This is nonsense and portrays the sector as some kind of poor relation and a second class service compared to GPs. It does a disservice to hard-working pharmacy teams who are dedicated to supporting their patients.

Most people understand that their GP is not always the most appropriate healthcare professional to turn to for advice. They value the easy access which community pharmacy offers and they know if the pharmacy team have any concerns they will flag those with the patient’s GP: those early interventions can literally be lifesaving which is why I welcome the cancer referral pilot in England. Most people visit their local pharmacy far more often than they do their GP surgery and therefore concerning symptoms are more likely to be spotted at an earlier stage.

The role of community pharmacy as the third pillar of access to the NHS should not be casually dismissed or undermined. GPs are struggling with growing demand from an increasingly older population with long-term chronic conditions whilst at the same time trying to tackle the COVID healthcare backlog. Pharmacy has a critical role to play in meeting healthcare needs hence Pharmacy First in Scotland, action to promote the role of pharmacy in Wales and the English Health Secretary’s recent announcement of a review of primary care with community pharmacy at the forefront.

The COVID pandemic surely put to bed outdated stereotypes about pharmacy simply being the place where you picked up medicines prescribed by your GP. Many people experienced, perhaps for the first time, the range of professional healthcare services available. And, of course, NHS 111 and GPs are referring an increasing number of people to community pharmacy. The patient expectation and experience has changed and is changing. A recent survey found that half of GPs in England intend to retire at 60 if not before with many considering working reduced hours before they retire. The “access to a GP” complaint is going to be with us for many more years which has to mean beefing up and investing in the community pharmacy network. Governments in Scotland and Wales understand this, but England is once again late to the game.

It is time to recognise that the pharmacy funding contract in England is no longer relevant to today’s national healthcare needs: circumstances have changed dramatically since it was agreed years ago.  We will continue to fight the fight with policy makers on behalf of our members. And, we will continue to ensure our propositions drive unique business opportunities, support items growth and help them deliver a stronger portfolio of services to their local communities. 

Now more than ever, members should make the most of their member benefits, to find out how you can maximise your membership, get in touch with your Pharmacy Development Manager or contact customer services on 0800 783 5709