As the debate over community pharmacy, and pharmacist numbers continues, are existing pharmacies are in the right places, asks Noel Wicks?

It seems that community pharmacy is doing a bit of soul-searching regarding the number of pharmacies there are. It’s an interesting debate and one that naturally seems to have polarised opinion. At the recent Sigma conference, chief pharmaceutical officer Keith Ridge suggested that the current Call to Action consultation could be used to help inform NHS England on this matter. It’s a sensible suggestion, I think, but I would hope that it wouldn’t be the end of the conversation, because the very reason for the consultation is to decide local strategies to help the commissioning of community pharmacy services.

 

It would seem a bit like putting the cart before the proverbial horse to look at pharmacy numbers before assessing the commissioning, roll-out and uptake of any future services that result from the consultation. If pharmacy has the potential to look and feel quite different in the near future, then it would seem logical to wait and see what that looks like before assessing the network.

Irrespective of how pharmacy numbers are discussed or how NHS England becomes ‘informed’ about them, the question remains: are there too many pharmacies? To my mind, there may even be a further question that needs to be considered at the same time: are these pharmacies in the right places?

It may be that we have roughly the right number of pharmacies but, due to factors such as proximity to surgeries, population density, etc, some of them are in the wrong places.

I have no doubt that there will be over-saturation in some areas. So should we not look to plug gaps through relocation and subsidy? This would provide a network with coverage that is unparalleled by any other healthcare provider in the UK, and I bet this would cost a lot less than those expensive walk-in centres that are in places that patients can’t access.

It may be that we have roughly the right number of pharmacies but, due to factors such as proximity to surgeries, population density, etc, some of them are in the wrong places.

These relocations would provide the perfect platform for using pharmacy as the walk-in, community-based first port of call that we all know it should be. In cases where relocation isn’t feasible, then perhaps a system of allowing pharmacies to merge in a consortium might be desirable. This could have a lock-out period meaning that, providing services are available, there would be no risk of someone opening another pharmacy in an area where two have become one.

This may seem radical, but if the future for community pharmacy does entail a change in numbers, then mechanisms for removing, relocating or combining pharmacies will need to be fair and transparent. I would also like to think that the Government would appreciate and take responsibility for the change in numbers by tweaking the control of entry regulations. Though, I won’t be holding my breath.

Noel Wicks is an independent pharmacist.

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