Community pharmacy can play a crucial role in identifying patients with undiagnosed coeliac disease, according to a newly published pilot study funded by charity Coeliac UK. The findings suggest that using pharmacies to target those with common symptoms of coeliac disease for testing could deliver numerous benefits to the NHS, including improved diagnosis rates and a reduction in the number and, therefore, the cost of repeat GP appointments.

The proof of concept project, which was project managed by the National Association of Primary Care (NAPC) and published in August in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacy, investigated the use of 15 pharmacies for active case finding of patients with coeliac disease.

People accessing over-the-counter and prescription medicines to treat symptoms of IBS, diarrhea and other gastro-intestinal problems and anaemias were offered a free point of care test to check for antibodies present in those with coeliac disease.

551 people were given the test, of which 52 (9.4 per cent) were given a positive result, a sign that coeliac disease may be the cause of their symptoms. Everyone who was tested received advice regarding the results, and those whose tests came back positive were advised to see their GP.

43 customers completed a satisfaction survey, all saying that they would recommend the service to others and that community pharmacy was an appropriate location in which to be tested. Pharmacists who took part in the study found that it improved relationships with their customers and that local GP practices responded positively to the service.

Coeliac UK chief executive Sarah Sleet said the organisation was “thrilled” with the results of the study, which “clearly shows the importance and value of utilising the expertise of community pharmacists.”

However, Sleet added, proposed cuts to pharmacy would hinder the roll-out of this approach and mean that patients and the NHS alike could lose out: “The direct costs associated with undiagnosed coeliac disease are increased visits to the GP, use of medicines for symptomatic treatment, increased investigations and referral, which all cost the NHS more in the long run, while the patient pays the price of reduced quality of life as misdiagnosis can mean an average wait of 13 years to get diagnosed.”

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