Mike Smith puts the world to rights...

I have just returned from one of my university lectures on careers in community pharmacy. I always really enjoy these events. They are attended by students who are enthusiastic, ambitious and extremely knowledgeable, and this always gives me great hope for the future of our proud profession.

However, there are one or two flies in the ointment from my point of view. The decision not to limit the number of pharmacy students leaves me baffled. The fact is, there will be a shortage of pre-registration places in 2016, leaving upwards of 200 newly qualified students unable to find places. Universities minister Greg Clarke has made it clear that not all students may be allowed register immediately after graduation – and this, in my view, is absolutely shameful.

I cannot understand a decision that risks such highly qualified and talented graduates being lost to the profession. The only motive can be to protect grants that would otherwise be lost to schools of pharmacy. This is certainly not the right start for the students that are the future of our profession.

The other challenge ahead for post-graduates is that there will be more clinical focus in the pre-registration examination. This is a move that I support. It is absolutely right that pharmacists acquire more clinical knowledge for the fulfilment of their future role in the provision of additional services. This will be a key function of community pharmacy in the future. But why is this being done without the inclusion of the British National Formulary (BNF)?

The exclusion of the BNF puzzles me – it is on the desk of every GP and nurse and I have always regarded it as the most valuable reference in our armoury.

I encourage the British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association (BPSA) to make its voice heard on this crucial matter and I shall certainly be highlighting this at its annual conference in Liverpool at Easter.

When pharmacy students do eventually register, they clearly need support and I applaud the Royal Pharmaceutical Society for the establishment of its foundation course, which can eventually lead to membership of the excellent RPS Faculty. This is an outstanding innovation and will raise the bar for the practice of community pharmacy. I encourage all pharmacists to consider membership and Catherine Duggan and her team at the RPS have my full support.

This is a critical time for our profession (but then when is it not critical?) – as there is currently a unique opportunity to promote pharmacy as the first port of call for minor ailments.

Winter pressures have again exposed weaknesses in the healthcare system. A&E departments and surgeries have been overrun. Estimates vary, but a survey of 3,000 patients in 12 A&E units conducted for the College of Emergency Medicine found that 15 per cent of patients could have been treated in thecommunity.*

The Royal College of General Practitioners is calling for 10,000 more GPs to meet these pressures,** but that can’t happen overnight. There is now no argument against the establishment of a minor ailments scheme in England – it works in Scotland and it would relieve many of these pressures.

We are in the lead-up to a general election, so now is the time to put pressure on MPs to support such a scheme. Where are our leaders, I ask again?

There are other problems that need addressing, too. A recent General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) survey found that pharmacists are the ‘least trusted profession’.

Conservative MP Paul Maynard said during parliamentary debate on the NHS on 21 January 2015 that ‘it will take 10 more years of lobbying before MPs recognise the sector’s role as a provider of health advice,’ MPs are still overlooking community pharmacy despite the sector putting ‘so much effort’ into building relationships with politicians from all parties. This is disappointing. We have been lobbying for as long as I can remember but, despite the comforting words from politicians, we have seen very little positive outcome. 

Pharmacists have invested heavily in their businesses on the expectation that this will meet increasing demand. So far, this investment has generated meagre returns.

It is down to every one of us to make our feelings known to our parliamentary candidates. There is a chance that they may listen to us now, but be sure they will not listen so keenly after the general election in May.

Good luck!

* www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/urgent-emergency-care/urgent-and-emergency-care-mythbuster

** www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-30964710

Mike Smith is chairman of Alliance Healthcare, mike.h.smith@alliance-healthcare.co.uk

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